Those who take on the global industry that traps research behind paywalls are heroes, not thieves
Never underestimate the power of one determined person. What Carole Cadwalladr has done to Facebook and big data, and Edward Snowden has done to the state security complex, Alexandra Elbakyan has done to the multibillion-dollar industry that traps knowledge behind paywalls. Sci-Hub, her pirate web scraper service, has done more than any government to tackle one of the biggest rip-offs of the modern era: the capture of publicly funded research that should belong to us all. Everyone should be free to learn; knowledge should be disseminated as widely as possible. No one would publicly disagree with these sentiments. Yet governments and universities have allowed the big academic publishers to deny these rights. Academic publishing might sound like an obscure and fusty affair, but it uses one of the most ruthless and profitable business models of any industry.
The model was pioneered by the notorious conman Robert Maxwell. He realised that, because scientists need to be informed about all significant developments in their field, every journal that publishes academic papers can establish a monopoly and charge outrageous fees for the transmission of knowledge. He called his discovery “a perpetual financing machine”. He also realised that he could capture other people’s labour and resources for nothing. Governments funded the research published by his company, Pergamon, while scientists wrote the articles, reviewed them and edited the journals for free. His business model relied on the enclosure of common and public resources. Or, to use the technical term, daylight robbery.