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Science’s pirate queen (theverge.com)
331 points by ColinWright on Sept 27, 2019 | hide | past | favorite | 107 comments

Frankly, scientific publishers represent institutionalised theft of tax payer money:

- Academics (most often publicly funded via grants and university salaries) do the work for free.

- They are expected to learn to use LaTeX and to typeset their work for free.

- They are expected to copy-edit the papers for free, or else pay a copy editor themselves with, you guessed it, public funds.

- Volunteer Academics (on university time and therefore, again, public money) are expected to review the work for technical accuracy and novelty. If done well this is extremely time consuming.

- Finally, the Journals have the temerity to charge the same universities who produce their product millions of pounds a year in journal subscriptions and Open Access fees.

- Finally finally, none of the Authors are ever paid for their work. Not that it matters, because again: public funding should mean public access.

The most frustrating part is that Academics themselves are locked into this system by the career prospects conferred by prestigious journals/conferences.

I’m not normally one for beating the “nationalise them” drum, but if there has ever been a case for businesses to be dismantled and put in public hands it’s these parasites.

Sincerely, a Scientist :-)

I agree, though a simpler solution than nationalization would be to legalize what Sci-Hub is already doing. It shouldn't be illegal to post a PDF on my website when the author wants it to be read freely and isn't going to to get paid for it anyway.

better yet, just abolish copyright and replace it with some automatic compensation system for the original author.

i don't know if "society" would exactly be better off if 100 film studios were all competing to make the best avengers movie, but it would certainly be good for creativity.

> better yet, abolish copyright

That's a serious argumentative leap to make. Do you really think that's the best solution for this case, or do you maybe have a pre-existing position on this issue which you believe this instance supports? The easiest option is likely to pass a law that publicly-funded research is publicly accessible.

> automatic compensation system

Could you detail this a little further? I'm not sure exactly for what you are advocating.

I think researchgate does that with a social network for scientists. I think if scientists can maintain a personal site (or use their lab site) and put the papers there you can mostly find them with google scholar. Researchgate works as well if you don't want to maintain a personal site. I'm not affiliated with researchgate in anyway but have posted by papers and thesis there which can be accessed via google scholar.

edit:- arXiv works as well :)

If it's in an academic's employment contract that they don't get to keep the rights to their academic papers it means 1) they already got paid and 2) they can't give away work that they already sold.

Points 2 and 3 heavily depend on the field you’re in. I’m currently in the medical field and not a single MD here has ever heard of or used LaTeX, type-setting is all done by the journals. The rest of your argument is of course spot on!

The most ironic part of the current system was once having to use sci-hub to download my own paper, as we didn’t have a subscription to the specific journal...

But publishers add a lot of value! https://cr.yp.to/bib/20050504-copyediting.txt

> Frankly, scientific publishers represent institutionalised theft of tax payer money ...

All the issues you raise are only slightly problematic. If scientists need to typeset their own research papers or volunteer for peer review are minor compared to the real problem that people can't read tax payer funded research.

He already brought that point up:

> - Finally, the Journals have the temerity to charge the same universities who produce their product millions of pounds a year in journal subscriptions and Open Access fees.

Yes, this is about universities. But the same paywalls affect regular people as well.

It is absolutely rediculus that publishing a paper costs more than I earn a month as a scientist.

> - Academics (most often publicly funded via grants and university salaries) do the work for free.

This means the public is paying the academic to do the work, they're not doing it for free. Grants do come with the expectation of results.

> - Finally finally, none of the Authors are ever paid for their work.

> The most frustrating part is that Academics themselves are locked into this system by the career prospects conferred by prestigious journals/conferences.

Just to be clear this doesn't mean scientists are unpaid, it means they're being paid in career prospects. (Edit: they're also paid in their salaries which include the expectation of work.) (And part of the journals' service is helping academia determine who the best scientists are. That's an important service if done correctly and deserves payment just like any other work.)

As with many scientific problems a good problem statement can make all the difference. It sounds like what you want is a different form of payment?

It's unclear how much of your problem with the academic system stems from its already nationalized aspects, how much comes from its non-nationalized aspects, and how much comes from it being partially nationalized. Until you can answer that question you might hold off on the "more nationalization" drum.

OP's point stands: the results of publicly funded work should be publicly available.

> part of the journals' service is helping academia determine who the best scientists are

Could you elaborate? If you're referring to the revered and important process of peer review, isn't that explicitly and exclusively performed by other scientists, paid mostly in public funding?

> Could you elaborate?

The idea is that a good publishing record gives one better career prospects. By accepting and rejecting papers journals are giving a signal used by academia in their hiring and promotion decisions.

If you're an administrator overseeing a scientific department your skills are probably in administration, not chemistry or physics or what have you. What you would really like is for a team of top chemists to tell you who the best chemists among your staff or hiring prospects are. That level of consulting would be cost prohibitive but the journals are providing a similar service that is apparently being exchanged for exclusive publishing rights.

Regardless of your funding source (there are many excellent scientists in industry), review is generally done on a volunteer basis.

Could we solve this with a community-driven approach similar to open source software?

There is already arxiv.org and biorxiv.org (and probably some more that I am not aware of) and they are gaining poplarity (some fields are faster in adoption than others).

These prerint-servers are great for publishing your papers as-is, without peer review. But scientfic standards also require people to let other independent researchers do a peer-review where they criticise your paper and then ask for further experiments/analyses/elaborations/corrections to strengthen the point you want to make with your paper. Traditional journals are usually pretty good at fetching people to do the (gratis) peer review for them. As far as I know something like this does not exist for papers on preprint servers. But at least you can leave comments under the preprints and thereby offer criticism or ask questions.

> But scientfic standards also require people to let other independent researchers do a peer-review where they criticise your paper and then ask for further experiments/analyses/elaborations/corrections to strengthen the point you want to make with your paper.

I'm not sure how familiar you are with open source software, but this is literally what happens with code review and pull requests in open source. Before code is accepted into the master branch, project maintainers review and test submissions. I don't see why a community couldn't be built that democratizes that review process even further. At risk of ridicule, I wonder if blockchain could be used to determine consensus "accepted" science.

That's the only approach that strikes as a credible way forward, in the long run. Especially so, when the research is taxpayer-funded.

(I'm obviously biased to that approach, as someone being professionally involved in the open source ecosystem for the last 10+ years.)

There's a reference to one of the 'value-add's of commercial journals being copy-editing:

> "For example, most of PLoS ONE’s editors are working scientists, and the journal does not perform functions such as copy-editing."

But, in fact, in my personal experience, the for-profit journals don't really do copy-editing anyway, but in fact introduce new errors into the paper which then the author has to pain-stakingly track down (or not).

I have just submitted an article to an Elsevier journal. They have some non-functional web interface so that you can edit the article yourself. My biggest problem was fixing the tables, because they looked really bad after the automated copy editing. There was some text on the interface which said something like "This will not be the final version of the tables", or at least that's how I understood it. Well, I clicked submit and without any real editing from a human on their side the article was published. Now my article, which I have put so much effort in, has messed up tables.

Same with me. We had submitted good quality graphs according to the requirements. When it got published the graphs got compressed and look worse now. Funny thing is: one of the graph was not high quality(done in Word), that one looks much better.

Who cares, everyone interested will just read your pre-print. :)

Right. The reviewers who did the peer review were unpaid; readers will read the pre-print. What value does the publisher add?

In my experience they mostly complain about the format of references not exactly matching their special standard.

Right, and then they ignore the .tex sources, including formatting, and reset the whole thing in some weird proprietary system anyway, making half of the compliance to formatting that I did completely pointless. (And in the resetting, they introduce a few new errors into the references for good measure.)

Yeah, the whole problem is that traditional publishing is designed around creating the best experience for publishers, not for authors or audiences.

The reference formatting thing is just one of the ways they make it obnoxious for authors (it would be better for authors if you could just send them a list of DOIs and their computers should make it look the way journal style dictates — ELife does this). Idiosyncratic rules about the naming of sections or formatting of methods or supplementary material make transferring article between journals (even at the same publisher) unnecessarily tedious.

From the audience perspective, nobody wants to vault over the paywall to click on the link to click on the link to get the pdf that displays in a pane of the browser window. Nobody wants an enhanced pdf, whatever that is. I don’t want to see a pop up with the articles you think I should read next because they happen to share a single word in the title. I just want to click a link in pubmed or google scholar and go direct to the pdf. A few months back someone posted an enhanced google scholar that just linked directly to the PDFs from sci-hub. The user experience was so good that it really highlighted how obnoxiously bad publisher sites are.

Off-topic nit: the word "painstaking" is a concatenation of "pains-taking", i.e. "taking pains". It's not usually given a dash, but if you put one in, it belongs after the "s".

On-topic: And that's just the sort of copy-editing that would end up being done by (unpaid) reviewers and not the paid copy-editors.

(Thank you, by the way.)

The biggest problem for these sites is maintaining consistent domain names. But they always still seem to find a way.

The author also did a AMA/FAQ style post on their website about the background of Scihub: https://engineuring.wordpress.com/2019/03/31/sci-hub-and-ale...

> The biggest problem for these sites is maintaining consistent domain names.



dark.fail should host that link

there is also ENS for holding distributed domain names using Ethereum (yes, same concept as Namecoin)

of course both of these solution require non-standard software that many people don't have yet

Fortunately, there's https://whereisscihub.now.sh

Or look at the Sci-Hub Wikipedia page.

If you look at the source code of the linked site, you'll see that WikiData is its data source. It's just a more convenient interface.

(Tip: /go automatically redirects you.)

Right. The Wikipedia route is just convenient in not having to remember a particular address (e.g. in case you're not on your own machine).

Wikipedia is good for links to most sites people try to ban.

Yeah, that's what I bookmark instead of playing tag with the latest clearnet domain.

oh wow i had no idea, kudos to her!

for those interested in old prints there is also http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/ and http://bitsavers.trailing-edge.com/pdf/ which i highly recommend.

Honestly hunting for the URL is half the fun

I think it was 2016 that the US handed over control of DNS to ICANN. I think it was the same day the pirate bay domain came back online.

Clever hacker Aaron Swartz was hounded by authorities for doing something similar, contributing stress that lead to his suicide.

I used to have a much higher opinion of MIT.

Epstein another scandal tainting MIST's eternal begging for money.

For anyone curious, she posted a few entries on her blog with corrections regarding The Verge's article.


Personally Sci-Hub was invaluable when doing some exploratory research on Free Space Optics.

under the academic publishers' system, now that I'm out of school I don't even have access to a paper that I coauthored. very thankful for scihub and Elbakyan

Stealing your own work! Have you no shame!...

That's not called stealing then, is it ? Have you no sense!...

At least one of us will need to check their sarcasm detectors.

She’s a hero. Elsevier should be smothered, you can go spit on it’s doorstep at Amsterdam Sloterdijk.

And they’re here only because copyright royalties are undertaxed here in NL to “help the creative industry”.... bloody perverse newspeak

Alexandra Elbakyan is probably one of the individuals who did the most for science in the recent years. And she is considered a criminal. We live in a crazy timeline.

She's named a criminal by those who stand to lose money from Sci-Hub, aka the greedy publishers and suits who try to profit off the scientific community.

Nature, Science, et al. have two important jobs:

1) Being a good filter, increasing S:N, so you don't have to waste time sieving bullshit yourself

2) Choosing pretty fonts, promoting good stylistic standards and guidelines (which scientists, unfortunately, usually tend not to do great on if left to their devices)

It is I think an acceptable argument that charging an exorbitant price for articles is a bit of a scam, but I don't think it's fair to say that they should earn 0, or that the value they create is of 0 price. Consider that each of Science, Nature, Cell employ a couple hundred employees. If you want a good sieve, you've gotta hire talented editors, if you want articles that are easy to read and easy to understand, you've gotta hire talented graphics artists. Suddenly, this doesn't seem so easy and cheap.

Papers in Nature and Science replicate at lower levels that journals with lower impact factors. That’s not really doing much for signal:noise. If you’re a working scientist you need to keep on top of your field for yourself. Anyone who relies on _journals_ to tell them what’s hot will be woefully out of date. Academia uses journals for archiving, not for dissemination of current research. That’s what pre-prints, working papers, conferences, workshops and seminars are for.

As far as design whether typography or graphic goes Sociological Science charges somewhere around $2,000 per article to authors and it looks just fine.


> Papers in Nature and Science replicate at lower levels that journals with lower impact factors.


Yah, I'm not sure what they mean. My nature and science papers certainly didn't replicate anything and if they did they wouldn't have published them.

The claim is that when other people try to replicate the experiments from papers published in Nature and Science, the success rate is lower than when attempts are made to replicate papers published elsewhere.

(I have no knowledge about whether this claim is accurate.)

another study in _Science_, which examined a more general cross-section of psychology studies and reported an even lower rate of successful replication than the one linked earlier (39%): https://science.sciencemag.org/content/349/6251/aac4716.long

the authors of this study detail at least potential reason for the tendency of high-impact (i.e. widely cited) journals and studies to have lower reproducibility rates: major journals tend to prefer publishing "innovative" studies w/ results that have the potential to push the envelope and advance the state of the art. as a result of this position on the extreme cutting edge, though, those kinds of studies are less likely to have really solid results. at the same time, though, they're more likely to inspire attempts to respond to them in one way or another -- leading to more citations.

they note that this emphasis by high-profile journals results in a disincentive to put in the time to do the less glamorous work of reproducing other teams' studies, which is a potentially major issue for the trajectory of science as a whole.

It's an accurate claim, and has been borne out in research.

Science and Nature ... like publishing groundbreaking research, research with surprising outcomes, etc. These categories of findings are more likely a priori to be false, so it's not surprising even with a positive story they are less likely to replicate than a perfectly pedestrian study with an unsurprising finding.

I agree that the filter is where the most value is, but it’s wrong to assume that the publisher is providing it. They’re not. The science community is the ones providing it — for free.

Same with publishing templates. The science community itself provides the style guides and style templates. The publishers provide printing presses. That’s it.

The scientific community can decide to abandon the publishers, and start competing journals, which will automatically transfer the heft away from the original and to the upstart, because it is the community that provides the value.

This may sound idealistic, but this has already happened. The linguistics community abandoned Elsevier’s Lingua and replaced it overnight with Glossa. The linguistic community’s success, then inspired the mathematics community to abandon Springer’s Journal of Algebraic Combinatorics and replace it with Algebraic Combinatorics.

This path is traveled. The pattern established. In 2019 it’s just much easier to start a publication since you need very little economic capital.

They wouldn't even need to start competing journals - often, there already are alternative journals, or preprints would serve the function of dissemination just fine. The main thing that's needed is that they perform the filtering independently of the publication process.

(Disclosure: I'm part of a project that aims to facilitate that.)

Practically all computer science research is published openly in arxiv.

These papers are self edited and peer reviewed in public. I don't see much difference from when CS papers where in journals

There's not any filtering being done there though.

(Though full disclosure: I'm part of a project that aims to help identify the best preprints, so it's somewhat my thing.)

Just a nit, in my personal experience, 8/10 CS papers are available for free. The other 2/10 are CS papers published in IEEE or other closed journals.

Most of the "sieving" is done by reviewers rather than editors, and reviewers are not paid. (There are some journals that pay their reviewers. I don't think any of them pay them much, and Nature and Science are not among their number in any case.)

Given that the vast majority of the papers I read are on Arxiv, linked by researchers online, I just don’t really buy the argument that we need to keep these publishers around. I’m betting that other researchers will still serve as a fine filter.

> Choosing pretty fonts, promoting good stylistic standards

I m sorry their standards can be crazy nitpicky and huge time wasters. Some uniformity is desireable, but their guidelines span tens of pages.

Well, she's technically not a criminal until she has been found guilty in a court of law. Right now, it doesn't appear like she had charges, but she should probably stay out of the US + EU.

Aaron Swartz did similar with for JSTOR, charged under the CFAA and for wire fraud, to the tune of $1 million and a 35 years jail time sentence.

He refused their plea bargain and committed suicide not too long after.

I hope the situation here is different enough that she will have a better time than he did.

Aka human parasites.

Cannot stand it.

She single-handedly fulfilled one important part of Google's mission "to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful." A part that a company like Google could never fulfill itself.

To be fair to Google, Youtube really changed the way the MAFIAA reacted to online music and videos. They did that for culture, they failed for science.

Sadly they fulfil it in the most restrictive manner: google scholar is given access to every publication, in order to advertise their paywalls

To be fair google scholar lists arxiv preprints as well if available.

In a sane world she would be given the Nobel Prize in every science.

After Knuth and Lamport get it in physics for TeX/LaTeX.

In a sane world she would be an unknown, regular person just like the rest of us, because all science would be published open access.

There are few things that piss me off more then finding papers paywalled for research that was done using public funds.. There should be a law against that!

You're forgetting that it's the copyright owners who get laws passed.

That's how copyright began in the first place! It was "The Statute of Anne": Restrictions on book printing due to lobbying by the printers.

Was it the printers? I thought it was the church trying to crack down on the publication of the wrong variant of the Bible.

Even if it was the printers, they weren't copyright holders at the time because there was no such thing as copyright before the law was passed.

That aside, it would be the authors that were there copyright holders, not the printers. Copyright has always been about middle-men trying to control the flow of information.

If it has benefitted content creators, it has done so only incidentally--because censorship laws are hard to stomach without a little sweetener.

They aren't the only force in lawmaking.

There are some funding sources that require open publications (NIH (National Institute of Health) in the US (United States)).


The downside is there is usually a fee to some publications to make your article public.

Also having submitted data to pubchem (https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/), its kinda automated, but there are some very professional/helpful staff there that will help you.

Open publication generally mean you have to pay even more to get it published.

Thanks god more people are using arxiv.

Elsevier, ACS and Co are just like patent trolls - pure harm and zero added value. Societal parasites.

Technically, the authors are allowed to send you copies if you contact them directly.

Can't we outsource that to a service so authors can work on more important stuff?

That's basically what ResearchGate tried to do, you upload your pdfs and then get an email saying "Joe Bloggs has requested your article", you can then click accept and they get sent a download link for your paper.

Unfortunately they tried turning it into a linkedin and stackoverflow for scientists and it seems like a bit of a mess.

And now it's 20 clicks to get that article Free some serious dark anti-patterns

This site already does a very good job of that:


(I prefer it to SciHub as you can search by keyword or author, or browse issues of journals etc, but I think the same papers are available–almost everything.)

What always gets me searching for material there is the apparent inability to constrain a search to (a) specific years, and/or (b) specific journals.

Is there a way to do that?

hmm..I can't see how to do that, no.

Library Genesis has a discussion forum, and it seems like those search functions wouldn't be hard to add. So get involved!

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz

July 2008, Eremo, Italy



Quite a feat for a story that's more than a year old to just make HN.

The stories been on HN a few times, in various fashions.

How does it reappear? Wouldn't the site catch the duplicate link?

This article is from last year. I thought it was new.

kind of open source science that we need

Dear all fully-baked "let's decentralize the internet" efforts,


1. Is the entirety of sci-hub smeared across the edges of your network?

End Questions

This is kind of disrespectful to Aaron Swartz:

>Headlines reduced her to a female Aaron Swartz

I think the implication is that calling her a female anything is skipping past her individual contributions as though she's the token female in this story, hence "reduction". I don't entirely agree that those headlines are a reduction, but that's what they meant I think.

Edit: maybe "the next Aaron Swartz" is slightly better

I don't mean to cast aspersions, but her accomplishments seem far more impactful then Aaron's.

I think the two both have important accomplishments, but they're not actually that similar in the details.

Huh? It's more disrespectful to her.

Also, if he'd been as protected from adversaries, he'd arguably still be alive.

When I make a glaze reduced down from balsamic vinegar, it doesn't mean I think the glaze is somehow worse or better.

I have mixed feeling on Library Genesis and Sci-Hub. First and foremost, I recognize it's essential good in providing journal access for all and it's reformation of academic publishing. However, I can go to Library Genesis, and download just about any book I want, load it on a kindle, and am good to go! Does this hurt small time publishers and de-incentivise authoring niche technical works? Particularly for the niche technical topics, authoring a book is not possible as a full time job, and I wish there were a good mechanism to promote the creation of this type of work.

I think you’ll find a few people on HN who have written such niche technical books. Ask them how much money these books made for them!

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