“Teenage kicks or virtual villainy?” what Yar can tell us about pirate scholarly communication

In “Teenage kicks or virtual villainy? Internet piracy, moral entrepreneurship, and the social construction of a crime problem”, Majid Yar writes about online music piracy from a sociological and criminological perspective. Whilst not directly about pirate scholarly communication (PSC), I found that the issues raised shed useful light on it.

Yar describes what many already know to be true – that unauthorised sharing of copyrighted material has been taking place for many years, meaning that PSC is not innovative in this respect. He evidences his claim by giving a history of music piracy both before and during the Internet age, which is consistent with other histories of piracy (e.g by Espinosa or Lessig).

Yar argues that piracy is not clearly a criminal activity and that it has been presented to society as a crime by those who profit from effective implementation of copyright. I found this particularly interesting as I had not previously thought about the origins of the term ‘piracy ‘ or about crime as a social construct. He also describes how pirates challenge this narrative and turn authorities’ claims regarding the immorality back on them, both of which are seen in PSC. Swartz, for example, recognises that academic publishers legally hold copyright to the academic literature they publish but contests that, by restricting access to this literature, their actions are immoral. He positions the literature as an important scientific and cultural resource that should be freely accessible by all. Indeed he asserts that those who have legal access to this literature have a moral duty to share it and questions the labeling of this sharing as piracy:

“It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative.”

Yar positions all beneficiaries of copyright as being more powerful than pirates but, in doing so, only takes into account these beneficiaries’ ability to influence people’s behaviour via legislation, the media and so on. Pirates may not be able to influence people via these institutions in the same way as big publishers, for example, but they can influence people’s behaviour directly via the services they offer.

The public perception that piracy is not a ‘serious’ crime is discussed. It seems that both general pirate services and PSC leverage this with, for example, over 87% of respondents to Science’s survey about Sci-Hub feeling it is not wrong to pirate academic literature.

Yar provides evidence to support what he sees as the ubiquity of online piracy. This is consistent with other literature on music piracy or online piracy in general (e.g. Bilton or  Mantel) but how widespread PSC is needs to be considered.  There is little research on this and I have yet to find any that looks at use of PSC in terms of age, gender, socio-economic background and other factors. Bohannon’s piece for Science, which focuses on Sci-Hub, indicates that usage of the service is widespread across the globe and that numbers of downloads are rising but also estimates that this may only add up to less than 5% of  legal downloads of academic literature from publishers. Similarly, Cabanac suggests that whilst use of #icanhazpdf and Reddit Scholar is significant, it is relatively small-scale. It should be noted that data available to both authors are limited.

Yar also frames copyright holders as having constructed piracy as a crime in an act of self-interested ‘moral entrepreneurship’, after Cohen*. This is another facet of the article that is of particular interest to me and that I would like to read about further -my gut reaction is that Yar’s analysis is correct. With regards to PSC, I suspect it will be even harder for the moral entrepreneurs to overcome resistance to their actions and their framing of piracy given the business models applied in academic publishing and the ethical issues surrounding access to academic literature.

*Note that Yar cites Cohen’s original 1972 text and this link is to a preview of the third edition


The relationship between pirate scholarly communication and open education – a beginning

Over the coming weeks I will be writing a series of posts about the relationship between pirate scholarly communication and open education as part of module H818 – The Networked Practitioner, that I am taking with The Open University.

I’ll start by providing some definitions of these terms.

By pirate scholarly communication, I mean online services, mechanisms and/or practices that provide illegal access to traditionally published scholarly literature in the form of journal articles, conference proceedings, books and so on. This content would usually have to be paid for but is made available for free via pirate scholarly communication. Examples of pirate scholarly communication include LibGen, Sci-Hub, Reddit Scholar, #icanhazpdf and AAAAAARG.

Openness in education can be seen broadly as “the adoption of measures to encourage widespread access to and participation in education” (Bell et al. 1993, p.2) but, in the current context, open education is often understood specifically as a movement that “encompasses resources, tools and practices that are free of legal, financial and technical barriers and can be fully used, shared and adapted in the digital environment”.

I will be examining these two phenomena, raising issues and asking questions in order to consider, among other things:

•   The extent to which pirate scholarly communication can be considered open education
•    The boundaries of open education
•    What role legality plays in open education
•    Whether pirate scholarly communication poses a threat to open education
•    The extent to which pirate scholarly communication can be considered innovative


Bell, R. 1930-, Tight, M. & Society for Research into Higher Education., S.E.-S. and O.U.P. imprint, 1993. Open universities : a British tradition?, Buckingham: Society for Research into Higher Education & Open University Press.