One aspect of pirate scholarly communication that particularly interests me are the moral and ethical arguments used to justify it. One thing that caught my attention was Alexandra Elbakyan’s invocation of Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in defense of her pirate site, Sci-Hub, against prosecution from Elsevier.
However, when I looked at Article 27 itself, I realised that what I had read (for example in American Libraries and infosciencetoday.org) about Elbakyan’s views only described them in relation to Article 27, Paragraph 1:
Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
This Paragraph gives backing to her claims that Sci-Hub is a morally and legally defensible service, which can be seen to enable wider sharing in scientific advancement and its benefits by making copyrighted academic literature free to read.
However, what the articles I read about Elbakyan do not touch on is Article 27, Paragraph 2:
Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author
My initial reaction upon reading this was that it undermines her claims somewhat by asserting the rights of authors over their work. However, what I had forgotten, and what is pointed out on TorrentFreak, is that the legal action being taken against Sci-Hub is not by authors, it’s by a publisher.
It was interesting to note that that publisher’s rights aren’t explicitly mentioned in Paragraph 2. Of course, publishers say they are acting in the best interests of their authors who are reliant on income from academic literature but it is unclear how this claim stacks up. A different relationship exists between authors and publishers of academic journal articles, for example, than between authors and publishers of other material. Academic publishers don’t typically pay researchers to write or peer review journal articles and researchers’ motivations for writing articles are not typically linked to direct financial gain – knowledge-sharing, prestige and career progression could be said to be more relevant. Many authors are interested in having their work disseminated as widely as possible (although the tension between this and the fact that many prestigious journals are not open access has to be navigated). Furthermore, I understand that even for authors of academic books and other forms of academic literature, the royalties they get from their works don’t usually form a substantial part of their income, which they are reliant on.
So, I would be fascinated to know whether any authors themselves would take action against Sci-Hub. I have started a Twitter poll to ask this question, check it out and I’ll post the results in due course.
Obviously, the UN Declaration of Human Rights isn’t the only legal framework out there but it does shed interesting light on this issue…