The one surprising thing that music and academia have in common

In a word: piracy. In a few more words: when the difficulty or the price to access the content increases and the option to pirate the content exists and is easier, piracy will win. The wider this gap, the more items will be pirated, but it doesn’t have to be a huge inconvenience. Take the music industry. All it took was making one very popular album only streamable on a much less popular service get it to be the number one most pirated music file. All it took was to put it on a service with 3 million subscribers, as opposed to having it on Spotify and Apple Music, with 30 million and 13 million subscribers respectively. By just making access a teeny bit harder, fans switched to piracy.

Daniel Ek, Spotify’s founder, said that his inspiration for creating Spotify was to make it better than piracy. “Napster was such an amazing consumer experience, and I wanted to see if it could be a viable business. We said ‘The problem with the music industry is piracy. Great consumer product, not a great business model. But you can’t beat technology. Technology always wins. But what if you can make a better product than piracy?’ Piracy was kind of hard, it took a few minutes to download a song, it was kind of cumbersome, you had to worry about viruses. It’s not like people wanted to be pirates. They just want a great experience.”

Which is why yesterday’s in depth look at who is downloading pirated academic papers is so very interesting. The answer: everyone. From rich universities to poorer institutions, from Western Europe to the Far East.  It turns out that there are few academic journal publishers and as such, they are able to control the market and price papers at $30 a pop! I was also surprised to learn that this fee doesn’t go to the author of the paper, just the publisher. There are also subscription services that allow unlimited access but those are so prohibitively expensive that only libraries of richer universities can afford them. Even then, the process to get an article is far from frictionless, with only authorized computers allowed to access content on authorized networks where access to an article is based on what model the researcher is subscribed to. Even when looking only at Elsevier’s (one prominent publisher) pricing models, it’s complicated.

In short, the ability to access necessary articles is so expensive as to be out of reach for many researchers. In the first example in the article a PhD student in Iran did the math and realized he would have to spend $1,000 a week for the papers he needed for his research. “The choice seemed clear: Either quit the PhD or illegally obtain copies of the papers.” Also, considering that $1,000 is about as much as his monthly living expenses, the choice was easy.

Statue of John Harvard watching over Harvard Yard. There were over 10,000 downloads in the Boston area between Sep 2015 and Feb 2016.

Statue of John Harvard watching over Harvard Yard. There were over 10,000 downloads in the Boston area between Sep 2015 and Feb 2016.

That’s where Sci-Hub, an online repository of papers founded in 2011 by a then 22-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan, comes in. Not only does it offer free and instant access to millions of papers, it also tries to meet specific requests in a short period of time. “Sci-Hub has amassed copies of the majority of scholarly articles ever published. It continues to grow: When someone requests a paper not already on Sci-Hub, it pirates a copy and adds it to the repository… So by design, Sci-Hub’s content is driven by what scholars seek.” The number of articles is also impressive. Sci-Hub currently hosts 50 million papers. Between September 2015 through February 2016 Sci-Hub had 28 million download requests, from all regions of the world and covering most scientific disciplines.

There are similarities to music piracy in every aspect of the Sci-Hub discussion. Take, for example, this quote: “The numbers are just staggering,” one senior executive at a major publisher told me upon learning the Sci-Hub statistics. “It suggests an almost complete failure to provide a path of access for these researchers.” It is this ease of access, a product that is focused on the needs of users, that made Napster and then torrenting such a success with music lovers. And it’s why music streaming services are gaining ground today: they have become easier, faster and cheaper than piracy.

The publishers, as the record companies of yore, seem to be in denial. They seem to think that their access is frictionless and its cost fair. From the Science article: Richard Gedye, speaking for the publishers says that institutions in the developing world can take advantage of special outreach programs that offer the same accessibility that major US institutions have. Regarding US users of Sci-Hub, Mr Gedye says that the blame should fall on librarians for not making their online systems easier to use and educating their researchers. Really?

Are we seeing the scientific publishing world’s Napster moment? Is it an industry so out of touch with the needs of its users that the users were quick to adopt a much better alternative, practically without qualms? Will it learn from Sci-Hub or will it attempt to stop it with endless lawsuits? But while Napster was stopped by the music industry, countless clones took its place and stopping them became a game of whack-a-mole that the industry lost. It was only when better products were offered to users that were, as Daniel Ek said, better than piracy, that users returned to paying for music. Let’s see what publishers end up doing.

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