Content is king – disrupting the academic publishing economy

On the weekends, I catch up on physics related and other news using sites/apps like Flipboard and Medium. One article really stood out to me:

In the article the researcher is citing as saying “sharing this knowledge is legal”, but I wonder if that’s a mistranslation from the author not intending legal, but ethical or moral. What’s happening at Sci-Hub is the later of the two, unfortunately not the former. Reading the article, I immediately sympathized with the researcher (Alexandra Elbakyan) and that underdog part of me rooted for her to charge on, while the part of me that’s been steeped in intellectual property law from my years in technology and open source knows she’s fighting a loosing battle.

I’ve hit this very frustration myself – even as a member of ACM, there are articles I frequently want to skim or read as I’m researching topics, and I hit a paywall – or for areas of curiousity that I’m not affiliated with, the barriers are faster and harder. Abstracts are supposed to help resolve some of that, but frankly I haven’t been able to use them to determine if an article is “interesting” or not, where interesting is “even understandable to my limited knowledge in the specifics of the field”. Neurobiology and related topics to deep learning is where I’ve hit a lot of that lately, but the cost of $25 to $50 to read an article I may not even be able to understand under the hope that it would further my knowledge isn’t a cost I’m willing to take.

There seems to be a tremendous opporuntity to disrupt the existing publishing environment – the barriers appear more social or environmental than technical. The Internet itself provides a solidly continuing commodization of storing and sharing content (or the site Sci-Hub likely couldn’t afford to operate) – but the current example is taking this on from the wrong end – after the paper has been published. It needs to be approached from the scientists and academics themselves. The various groups that are continuing the publish or perish meme in academia, and the source of all that content. The business goal is pretty simple – disintermediate the publishers. Shoot – that’s exactly what a site like Medium is heading towards doing, just for less academic content. I haven’t done the research, but it seems possible that a small team running a site under an initial grant from something like a Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation could fund a seed to start a process rolling that shared information in an exceptionally low cost way. A foundation like that would also have the contacts to academic communities to help share the knowledge of it’s purpose and existance. The “business” of the non-profit could leveraging donations or a combination of donations and lower-cost academic subscriptions in order to pay for the infrastructure. Examples like Wikipedia and The Internet Archive stand out to show it can be done. The backing of a non-profit and a fairly large philanthropic organization may be just enough to kick it over the edge of acceptability to take it from “just something posted on the internet” to “academic archive with peer review” that’s accepted and embraced by a multitude of scientific disciplines.

I’m sure there are other barriers that the existing publishers have cunningly errected to keep their hold on the legacy system from papers and books. I also think it’s worth jousting at that particular windmill – for the freedom of knowledge.





Published by heckj

Developer, author, and life-long student. Writes online at

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