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Inside Annoyed Librarian

Doomed Journals and More

The big prediction in scholarly publishing in the last week was pretty big indeed: that the success and comprehensiveness of Sci-Hub will doom subscription journals.

If you don’t remember, Sci-Hub is the website that provides free but illegal access to scholarly journal articles that Elsevier keeps suing in courts that have no jurisdiction in Russia, where Sci-Hub is apparently located.

Why does Elsevier keep tilting at that windmill? According to the study predicting the doom of subscription journals, “For some major publishers, such as Elsevier, more than 97% of their catalog of journal articles is being stored on Sci-Hub’s servers—meaning they can be accessed there for free.”

The 3% are probably journals nobody wants anyway, like the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, a vanity journal Merck paid Elsevier to publish a few years ago.

It’s probably pretty easy to cancel your Elsevier subscriptions, as several German universities are doing, if your researchers can get the articles anyway for free.

Sci-Hub supposedly provides “instant access to 85% of all papers published in subscription journals,” which definitely creates incentives for libraries to give up altogether and replace all their lists of databases and indexes with a link to Sci-Hub.

And if it’s not on Sci-Hub, what’s a poor pirating scholar to do? It’s okay. The study “estimated that Sci-Hub was able to fulfill requests 99% of the time.” That’s probably better than a lot of ILL operations.

With Elsevier, as with thermonuclear war, the only winning move is not to play, unless you ignore the rules. As Sci-Hub has now proven, you can win the game if you don’t play by the opponent’s rules, at least in the short run.

But “doom” is a long term prediction. Sci-Hub’s had a great run because it’s out of the reach of any group that wants to stop it, but will that last forever? Oh, wait, “there are technologies coming that would allow you to host files without any central point of failure.”

After that, Sci-Hub achieves consciousness and takes over the world. Elsevier et al. have only so much time to stop this before it becomes unstoppable.

They seem to be going about that the wrong way, though. Elsevier keeps suing, but “each legal challenge resulted in a spike in Google searches [for the site], which suggests the challenges are basically generating free advertising for Sci-Hub.”

I’m pretty sure I would never have heard of Sci-Hub if there hadn’t been a story about the Elsevier lawsuit making its way around the library world.

The study predicts the doom of subscription journals, but it doesn’t say much about libraries, except that the fact they can’t afford 100% access to subscription journals is probably driving traffic to Sci-Hub.

But what about libraries? The study predicts the doom of subscription journals, and providing access to subscription journals is a major role for academic libraries these days.

Academic libraries usually can’t rely on trendy services like reversing opioid overdoses to draw in patrons, but they do at least provide access to subscription journals.

If people can get all the journal articles they want for free either from Sci-Hub or through open access journals, why would anyone need academic libraries anymore?

Academic libraries have been struggling for years to prove their worth. Hopefully for the academic librarians out there, if this prediction is accurate that worth will be more than providing access to journal articles.

Libraries have been trying for years to achieve the simplicity of access that Google seems to provide, often against the designs of publishers. The game might be over. Publishers lose. Libraries lose. Researchers win, for now. Looks like information really might want to be free after all.


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  1. Thanks for the terrifying article Annoyed Librarian. It’s good to know my livelihood is in jeopardy and there is nothing I can do about it!

  2. Cut Both Ways says:

    Good thing journal publishers spent their massive windfalls on improving ease of access for researchers and finding ways to reduce costs for universities… oh wait…

  3. Ultimately, everyone’s a loser if SciHub dominates. Essentially, they’re a mega aggregator and nothing more. And they are pirates running roughshod over intellectual property rights that should be respected even if we don’t always like some of the particular manifestations of copyright and permissions. SciHub is not a publisher, nor do they provide the editorial and journal management support that ultimately generates all of the content SciHub harvests.

    This is not an argument to perpetuate the large predatory commercial publishers like Elsevier. They just represent another form of piracy that wraps itself in more conventional commercial and legal ownership models. There is a role and arguably a responsibility for libraries to provide a better alternative that repatriates scholarly publishing to the academy and does so at the very least by redirecting collections funds to supporting OA publishing. Ideally, libraries could go even further and provide support for journal hosting and related publishing services as part of everyday operations at their library. Libraries are also very adept at collaboration and already have numerous content aggregation initiatives that could do everything that SciHub currently does. That’s one way libraries could prove their worth and provide a future for scholarly publishing and knowledge dissemination that doesn’t come down to a choice between SciHub and Elsevier.

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