Could Piracy Accelerate Consolidation?

The recent news that a researcher in Russia running a site called Sci-Hub has downloaded 48 million scholarly articles and is making them available free as a form of protest over the fact that some publishers charge US$32 to buy a single article is a good opportunity to pause and consider exactly who is being hurt in this scenario.

From a financial and economic standpoint, collateral damage is entirely possible.

In the mind of Alexandra Elbakyan, the Russian researcher behind Sci-Hub who is currently defying a US district court injunction, she and her ilk are mainly hurting large commercial publishers, organizations she thinks are exploiting academic information illegitimately.

But is her approach likely to have that effect?

First, how Sci-Hub works:

The site works in two stages. First of all when you search for a paper, Sci-Hub tries to immediately download it from fellow pirate database LibGen. If that doesn't work, Sci-Hub is able to bypass journal paywalls thanks to a range of access keys that have been donated by anonymous academics (thank you, science spies). This means that Sci-Hub can instantly access any paper published by the big guys, including JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier, and deliver it to you for free within seconds. The site then automatically sends a copy of that paper to LibGen, to help share the love.

The article from Science Alert calls this system "ingenious," but that's flattering and naive. This kind of scheme is not new. As "ingenious" as an employee at a local hardware store who cuts an extra set of house keys, jots down the addresses, and uses these keys to enter homes around town whenever the owners are elsewhere? Or, in the old days, an "ingenious" employee would keep the carbons from credit card transactions and use these to make personal purchases? Or, more currently, an employee "ingeniously" swiping a credit card twice, once for the customer and once for themselves? The list goes on. Misused and misappropriated passwords aren't "ingenious" ideas, either.

Complaining about the US$32 per-article pricing isn't new, either. Unfiltered complaints like this from journalists always signal that the reporter hasn't done her or his homework, and does not understand how publishing works, which is odd since it literally might pay for them to know. Again, there's nothing new here. Newspapers at the newsstand are much more expensive than home-delivery newspapers, for instance, because the newspaper publisher wants to encourage subscription, which is a better business model. So subscribers pay a lot less per-copy than ala carte purchasers. The same goes for academic publishers, but even more so -- that is, subscribers pay only a few cents per-article for subscription access (whether that's through an individual subscription or a site license), while the price for single articles is high to discourage ala carte usage. In addition, new solutions like article rentals and so forth have lowered pricing on the per-article front, and free access to developing economies is a long-standing practice among academic publishers.

As so often seems to be the case, the problem isn't nearly what Sci-Hub wants everyone to believe. Research papers are more available, and available at a lower cost per-paper, than ever before, trends that are likely to continue.

What's more alarming is that the organizations Sci-Hub's activities will hurt aren't the ones they're after, and the effects are likely to strengthen large commercial publishers. Bizarrely, some individuals working at organizations that would be hurt are apparently helping the pirates.

Returning to the days of Napster, or more recently of early music streaming services, and you begin to realize we've seen this story before. Instead of dozens of record stores and outlets, we now have a handful of digital sales and streaming services. Consolidation was the result of a disrupted marketplace, instigated by piracy.

But who has that hurt? In the case of music, the people most of us forgot about were the artists, who received no royalties at all for music downloaded illegally. Then there were the record stores, which used to exist, but no longer do as they were undercut by digital music piracy as a first blow, one from which they never recovered. What started as piracy ended up as a music economy that sells more songs than ever, but makes far less money from these sales, forcing artists into a more performance-oriented mode, reducing the number of mid-tier artists with viable careers, and putting technology companies and producers in far greater control of the music industry.

Sci-Hub believes its actions are primarily humbling publishers like Elsevier, which are obviously the primary target. However, they are also hurting other participants in the academic publishing economy, some of whom are apparently aiding and abetting:

Authors -- Books are also included in the materials Sci-Hub has purloined through access keys delivered by "science spies." When a publisher sells fewer books, royalties fall. While not often huge, these can be a nice supplement to academic pay. If allowed to persist, not only would royalties be lower, but advances would fall. For journal authors, where rewards for publication are indirect, data about their articles' impact and influence will likely be diminished, especially alt-metrics measures.  This is an interesting aspect of the new interlinked impact infrastructure -- piracy undercuts its functioning.

Libraries who pay for site license access -- Despite the public shaming over US$32 articles and continued claims that institutions like Cornell and Harvard can't afford to purchase site licenses (despite multi-billion-dollar endowments, and the fact that Cornell raised more than $11 million to support its $8.8 million dollar library budget in 2015, and that Harvard recently saved $25 million by restructuring staff and eliminating duplications in its system), the reality is that libraries pay very low per-article usage rates for most titles. In any event, the main problem here is that libraries are paying while Sci-Hub is using their access keys and paid access to purloin articles. Both publishers and libraries have a mutual interest in accurate usage reporting. If Sci-Hub ever becomes a significant factor in access to articles, usage becomes inaccurate, and pricing inequities are more likely to emerge or be suspected, which will cause both parties to posture or make pricing adjustments in the blind, which could lead to irrational behavior. Meanwhile, Sci-Hub continues to bleed libraries using their own access keys.

Society publishers and specialty societies -- Focusing solely on commercial publishers like Elsevier and SAGE, and you find dozens upon dozens of society journals within each publishing company. Sci-Hub is not ripping off articles from Elsevier or Wiley or SAGE, per se, but from the societies that use these commercial firms as publishing houses. Go beyond this, and you find the self-publishing non-profits with articles caught in Sci-Hub's scheme. In short, the majority of what is in Sci-Hub is most likely coming from non-profit societies, making this less of a story of Robin Hood robbing from the town's greedy sheriff, and more a story of Robin Hood stealing from the town's hospitals and charities.

Universities -- Returning to the site licenses and libraries above, clearly academic centers are being hurt as an extension, as they have less to show for their expenditures, yet no decrease in demands from faculty and researchers that they maintain access to key titles. Add to this the institutional repositories universities invested in, which are now at risk of becoming even less viable.

Funders -- With Gold OA now a decent segment of paid publishing, venues like Sci-Hub could be viewed as just another distribution outlet for articles already paid for. However, usage of these articles isn't documented in the normal fashion given Sci-Hub's spare infrastructure, so funders and Gold OA publishers have a new blind spot around the value they're actually deriving from their funding. Accountability decreases, uncertainty increases, and APCs will likely rise if publishers of all stripes have to adjust to pirates on the waters.

Sci-Hub, and those "science spies" who are making Sci-Hub's piracy possible, are skewing the academic publishing economy in a way that will only hurt not just large commercial publishers but authors, libraries, charities and societies, universities, and funders as well.

It's likely that the entities most vulnerable to machinations like those exhibited by Sci-Hub are the non-profit societies -- organizations with long histories of providing training, assistance, and career boosts for people like Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub's creator. In essence, the only people she's hurting are people like her, who will now have to pay more for articles (to offset the losses from her theft), more for society memberships, more for tuition, and so forth.

Economies respond to piracy by charging more for those who do and will pay, or by letting entities scuttled by pirates sink into Davy Jone's locker. Piracy eliminates jobs, suppresses economies, and can, at its most extreme, bifurcate an economy as smaller entities are easily sunk while larger ones withstand the assault. With about 95% of academic publishers earning revenues of $25 million or less annually, most academic publishers need to preserve, if not build, revenues. That's difficult to do in the shadow of piracy.

Bottom line: In academic publishing, with all the other forces pushing consolidation, you can add piracy to the list.