Some call it information sharing, others call it piracy. The digital age means duplicating data is easier than ever before, and clamping down on unauthorized distribution is a near impossibility.
Music, movies, TV shows, and books have all felt the impact of decentralized communication and P2P communications. With media and entertainment juggernauts feeling the heat, it comes as little surprise that academic giants are also being affected.
The rising cost of education is a big problem in the U.S., with the average cost of a four-year degree totaling over $20,000. However, soaring tuition rates representing only part of the problem. Academic subscription costs from publishers have increased so high in recent years that even some of the country’s wealthiest universities are ditching them.
Harvard even encouraged its faculty to stop publishing research for journals that hold articles behind paywalls. After subscription costs totaled in the millions, the top-ranking university ruled the once-vital cost as “fiscally unsustainable.”
The financial blockade setting many people apart from important academic information is similar to the costs levied by entertainment companies – costs which were worked around by individuals those industries described as “pirates.” It seems academia may be seeing a similar trend at work, as a pirating service for academic journal articles could change the entire field.
Sci-Hub has caught on quickly. The site contains 68.9 percent of all academic research. In addition, over 85 percent of material held behind a paywall can be found on Sci-Hub at no cost.
The site also has a number of services that can quickly fetch new information. Started in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, the site has received takedown orders from law enforcement on several occasions. It is currently accessible on the dark web via the encrypted message app, Telegram. Users can fund the system with cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin.
In some ways, the rising cost of education has made good information more important than ever. This has led to the website drawing criticism from lifelong academics and advocates of piracy crackdowns. Those who oppose the system claim individuals are free-riding on the hard work of professors and academic experts who work diligently to compile this information.
For others, this is a classic example of artificially high costs leading to a black market. Not only has the rising cost of education has been criticized in the U.S., but academics have come under fire for profiting from the system unfairly while also working to keep alternative educational models suppressed. Given the high amounts they’ve always been able to charge for their work, they’ve always had the resources to do this – at least until recently.
Proponents of the free distribution of information further drive their point home by noting that academics are paid largely in taxpayer grants and subsidies. At the very least, the information they’ve gathered could be seen as a return payment for getting such massive benefits.
While some claim this could push certain academics away from publishing, others claim it could put in place an academic revolution by providing the less fortunate with access to information.