Sci-Hub -- Two Sides, Both Shrink

There has been good coverage of the Sci-Hub controversy -- from an overview of their technical approach from Silverchair to media coverage to blog posts.

One thing that was recently pointed out in a blog post by Stewart Lyman is that Sci-Hub is entirely dependent on the scientific publishing economic ecosystem remaining largely intact. Because the site leverages credentials from institutional subscriptions, these access points are vital to the site's ongoing relevance (and, with a couple of million new articles being generated each year, this is not a trivial point).

As Lyman writes:

The rebel movement won’t gain much traction unless researchers at Yale, Stanford, Oxford, Pfizer, and Genentech, etc. begin to switch over to Sci-Hub, and that’s not going to happen. These organizations will block this behavior because, though they hate paying for overpriced journals (e.g. Harvard paid $3.5 million in 2012 for these), they will stand firm in support of intellectual property rights. They will not be part of the revolution.

While Lyman is certainly correct, I think there is an important nuance to add. I wrote about this recently, and Lyman's essay provides a good chance to expand on the point in an important manner.

In my earlier post, I talked about how piracy might drive consolidation among publishers, something that is already moving ahead at a steady clip, if not accelerating. Many specialty societies are signing on with the big publishers as competing on terms of operational and sales excellence in a global, technological economy seems less and less feasible for small organizations with each passing year.

However, what I missed in the first post is that piracy might also consolidate the purchasers in the academic publishing market.

While Lyman notes that big institutions aren't going to violate IP laws they themselves benefit from, many smaller purchasers may have fewer qualms or restrictions when it comes to using sites like Sci-Hub to access content. Individuals certainly will have fewer qualms or restrictions.

Already, technology has consolidated purchasers in academic publishing, from widespread individual and uncoordinated departmental purchasers to fewer institutional licenses, coordinated organizational purchasing, and consortial approaches to consolidate buying power.

Should piracy effects allow smaller purchasers to exit the market, pricing for those remaining will increase to compensate. As large, consolidated sellers meet large, consolidated buyers, pricing battles will become more common, more often public, and messier overall.

But Sci-Hub or its ilk can't kill paid access. It is what they're leveraging. If that ends, Sci-Hub ends. They succeed in their end game, and they fail. It's a paradox that may ultimately make this a tempest in a teapot when it comes to dire effects and the gutting of an industry.

However, with the extreme eliminated, it's likely that consolidation continues, unless a new technological card is dealt that changes the table, or legal recourse proves successful. But market dynamics are clear -- piracy drives consolidation, for both buyers and sellers.