“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


Would authors take legal action against Sci-Hub? Results of Twitter poll and reflections on my network

Well, I said I would post the result of a Twitter poll I created, asking the question “Academic authors, would you want legal action against if publishers weren’t taking it already?”.

I gave this poll a shot as I wanted to get insight into authors’ views on Sci-Hub and a previous Twitter poll I ran got a  reasonably high response (considering the size of my network). However, this particular poll only got one response. The response was a “no” (i.e. the respondent would not want legal action taking against Schi-Hub) but there is not  much that can be read into this, for obvious reasons.

So, firstly I want to say ‘thank you!’ to the person who engaged with the poll. Next, let’s see what factors might have limited engagement and what I can take away from this:

  • Firstly, the number of responses I get on Twitter will be limited by the size of my network. I currently have 78 followers –  I appreciate them all very much, but it’s not a huge following
  • Hashtags don’t equal engagement. I used #scihub in the hope of reaching a wider audience but it seems I cannot rely on hashtags alone
  • The timing of my poll may be significant. I tweeted it at about 23.00-24.00 on a weekday, which might have limited how many people saw it
  • Retweets really help. My successful poll got four retweets, whereas this less successful poll got none
  • The target audience was narrower. My successful poll was addressed to “Researchers, students, scholars”, whereas this less successful poll was addressed only to “Academic authors”

I need to consider all of the above if I am to become a more effective networked practitioner.

Would authors shut down Sci-Hub?

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…

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.