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Subscription-Based Journals May Be Facing the Music Industry Predicament due to File-Sharing Platforms

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The Leeds Library, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, UK, on February 3, 2015 | © Courtesy of Michael D Beckwith.

As large publishers fight via legal means illegal scientific article downloading, such as via Sci-Hub, empirical findings show that over 85% of paywall-protected article catalogues are accessible through no-fee, controversial repositories.

A Blog Article by Pablo Markin.

While legislative initiatives seek to strike a balance between the interests of academic journal publishing industry and those of scientific communities, such as by setting quotas for Open Access to publicly supported research publications, as has recently been proposed in Germany, they can be perceived as falling short of researcher needs that continue to be largely covered by scholarly journal subscriptions that university libraries and research institutions acquire on a regular basis. At the same time, digitization may be poised to unleash in the scientific journal publishing industry changes similar to those that illegal music download platforms have instigated in the music industry.

More specifically, the global music industry has experienced revenue declines between 2002 and 2010-2015 from around 25 billion USD to approximately 15 billion USD respectively, whereas in 2016 music industry revenues have climbed to circa 16 billion USD. In parallel, iPod, in recent decades the flagship Apple Inc.’s product, has been launched in 2001 building on Internet connectivity, content digitization and personal computing technologies. The popularity of this product has been fueled by the wide availability of both paid-for music recordings in digital form and illegally downloaded mp3-format files, which has led to the evolution in the business models in the music industry, such as flat-rate subscriptions.

Likewise, journal publishing may be in the throes of a similar transformation, as digitization-related factors make pirated scholarly papers accessible for illegal downloading, such as through Sci-Hub, at no cost. Reachable through a series of websites providing access to direct, albeit illegal, downloading of academic papers from several repositories, Sci-Hub has been founded by Alexandra Elbakyan, Kazakhstan national who could not afford article access fees that large publishers charge, in 2011. In 2015, Elsevier, one of major international scientific journal publishers, has filed a copyright infringement complaint against Sci-Hub and other article downloading platforms, such as Library Genesis, in New York, while demanding 15 million USD in damages. Though a New York court has decided this legal case in favor of Elsevier in June 2017, this publisher has been increasing its Open Access portfolio holdings in recent years, which can indicate a change in its business model.

At the same time, the Electronic Frontier Foundation has expressed its support of Sci-Hub. In view of the constant growth in journal subscription budgets that university libraries needed to allocate in recent decades, Sci-Hub has also been perceived as transformative. According to a recent pre-print of the study by Daniel Himmelstein et al., at present Sci-Hub repositories provide free of charge access to over 69% of full-text, PDF versions of scholarly articles in general, whereas these repositories hold over 85% of articles published by subscription-based scholarly journals. Moreover, by-publisher figures indicate that the article access coverage of Sci-Hub for large journal publishers ranges from over 89% for Springer/Nature to over 97% for Elsevier.

Consequently, major journal publishers deriving the majority of their revenues from traditional, toll-based, paywall-protected business models may need to revise their business strategies in response to illegal research-article sharing.

By Pablo Markin

Featured Image Credits: The Leeds Library, Leeds, Yorkshire, England, UK, on February 3, 2015 | © Courtesy of Michael D Beckwith.

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