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  • Writer's pictureAllan Dyen-Shapiro

Update: science is now free

Last week, I posted, comparing/contrasting the situation in science with that in fiction in terms of freedom of information. The position I'd come to with regard to fiction is that it was impossible to offer it all for free without hurting the content creators, unless you had a government willing to stably offer what Holland did in the 70s through 90s: subsidizing a middle class lifestyle for all creators of culture. However, the content creators in science would not be hurt by providing the content for free, as they are already providing peer review labor for free, and they are expected to do this pro bono work as a condition for employment by universities/government institutions/private companies.

Well, a graduate student from Kazakhstan has now put much of what you'd want on the Internet for free on a searchable site. Rather than kill himself when the courts pursued him, like open access advocate Aaron Swartz did, this woman, Alexandra Elbakyan, is hiding out somewhere in Russia. Here's the link to the NYT article about her:

The site works great. I loaded in the URL for an article from this week's Nature, and up it came. Here's the URL for her site (Sci-Hub):

It is never illegal to access a site somebody else has put up in a country where it is legal--you are in no trouble if you access these papers. So, journalists, students, researchers in regional American universities or developing world universities, go ahead.

As for whether it is moral, my question is who is hurting? The people who will use this site would not have bought access to the journals anyway. The companies will lose no revenue. The scientists will lose no revenue; instead, they will gain in the number of people familiar with their work and in access to other work.

Those of you who are philosophically committed to 19th century capitalism, your option is to support a tax on the one-percenters (or on estates or on some other wealth) to be used to pay off these publishers for universal access. Not that they haven't already been paid off, as the government supported the research that went into the articles and the publication costs the scientists paid to publish.

If you really think downloading Nature or Science (or many, many other journal's) articles is theft, go ahead and advocate for that tax. I will happily support your initiative.

Those of you who think the cronyist plutocratic system that retains the 19th century term of capitalism is already theft, go ahead and download.

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