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Open Access Can Help Redress Geography-Related Access Disparities in the Global Scientific Publishing Market

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Inauguration of Global South-South Development Expo at the OAS, Washington, DC, USA, November 17, 2014 | © Courtesy of Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS/Flickr.

Behind the lawsuit-backed fines and media bruhaha around Sci-Hub, a controversial scientific article-sharing website operated by Kazakhstan-based Alexandra Elbakyan, stands the oligopolistic dynamics of the privatization of the scientific commons that have created few large-scale global publishers effectively controlling the access to scientific knowledge. Open Access to journals and data is, thus, at the forefront of the globalization of science driven by emerging economies.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.


Ian Graber-Stiehl dedicated an in-depth piece to digital piracy in the field of academic publishing by Elbakyan’s Sci-Hub in the Verge on February 8, 2018. The article traces the development of this website hosting over 64.5 million scientific articles into a formidable threat to the traditional, subscription-based business models of large journal publishers, such as Elsevier. Incidentally, Open Access is based on the premise that research articles need to be universally accessible free of charge in electronic form, which corresponds to the aim of promoting the global participation in scientific advancement enshrined in the Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations that, however, also seeks to support the universal protection of intellectual property. While Graber-Stiehl presents a fine-grained, journalistic portrait of Elbakyan, a figure both celebrated and reviled, the industry-level background to her notoriety is the compound growth in journal subscription fees that can range from 9% to 30% depending on country, methodology and period.

Furthermore, the global scientific article publishing market is dominated by a handful of big internationally operating publishing houses, e.g., Reed-Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and the American Chemical Society, as a consequence of the increasing concentration of access to over 50% of all academic papers and to over 70% in some scholarly fields, such as psychology. While the paywall-based business models of traditional publishers also follow from the internal costs that article publishing labor and expertise inputs entail, such as peer-review handling and professional proofreading, the resultant subscription or access fees, however, pose a significant barrier to scientific knowledge to scholars and institutions hailing from non-Western states, developing countries and emerging economies. This has created the incentives for both the emergence of Sci-Hub and its significant use rates in lower-income countries from global peripheries.

Yet as emerging economies, such as Kazakhstan, harden their stance toward illicit file-sharing by making it punishable by law, e.g., imprisonment penalties, Sci-Hub is not likely to be an alternative to Open Access. Since the distribution of pirated content can and is prosecuted in the court of law, the implementation of Open Access and Open Data policies by governments, publishers and non-profit organizations remains the most viable and sustainable in the long-term avenue for promoting access to scientific knowledge in middle- and lower-income countries. For instance, Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resource Coalition advocates in favor of the open sharing of scientific data globally.

In other words, especially with respect to economic barriers to scientific knowledge that exist in Global South countries, Open Access and Open Data, such as in the form of flipping journals into Open Access or governmentally mandating Open Access to scientific data and results obtained from publicly funded research, can assist with the mitigation of the effect that market concentration and paywall-based models have on access to scientific knowledge around the world.

By Pablo Markin


Featured Image Credits: Inauguration of Global South-South Development Expo at the OAS, Washington, DC, USA, November 17, 2014 | © Courtesy of Juan Manuel Herrera/OAS/Flickr.

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