I read Mike Taylor’s post on how Sci-Hub is a ‘litmus test’ a few days ago. The post highlights some of the people who are sympathetic to Sci-Hub, as well as some of the people who are hostile towards the initiative. Reading the post, what stood out to me was the inanity of some of the hostile comments — some of them making the most bizarre claims.
Among the more bizarre claims are the ones to the effect that keeping the scientific literature locked away is a good thing. Taylor quotes David Wojick who writes:
I personally doubt that there are large numbers of people who (1) have the expert knowledge required to read and benefit from the scholarly literature but who (2) cannot find a way to access what they need. The arguments I have seen to this effect are completely unconvincing.
This is one of the fundamental fallacies of OA, namely that non-experts should read journals. […] Only a few people can understand the typical journal article.
That’s a very elitist argument, and for two reasons.
First, these blessed people Wojick speaks about who don’t have problems with access don’t exist. Anecdotally, but not irrelevant to the issue at hand, I’m currently doing a DPhil at the University of Oxford — supposedly one of the most prestigious universities in the UK. Yet, it is a regular occurrence that I find a paper that I think looks interesting from the abstract, but that I find, to my dismay, that I can’t access because the Bodleian Library doesn’t seem to have a subscription that covers that particular journal. If there is no freely available copy easily accessible via Google Scholar, then what is a poor, suddenly-not-so-privileged DPhil student to do?
Second, to claim that it’s a “fallacy” that non-experts would want to read scientific journals is beyond ignorant. Not only is that a moot point that does nothing to support Wojick’s argument — in no way should the lack of desire for access mean that access should be denied — it’s also making a very unpalatable claim, namely, that people who aren’t experts have no business reading the expert literature. That’s like saying that people who don’t have an education don’t deserve one. That is just silly.
In addition, there is a third argument, and one that is very close to my own heart. Even if I don’t have access to all the papers that I need/want for my own research, I still have access to a decent amount of the scholarly literature. Because of this, I regularly download papers and articles on behalf of friends and family. I do so for friends who don’t have access via their own institutions, or for friends who recently finished their degrees, which leaves them without an institution, and therefore without access. In such scenarios, the system is preventing access to legitimate experts, which completely invalidates Wojick’s claim.
In addition, although I’m only half-way through my doctorate, I’m already thinking about life after I’ve completed my degree. It’s been a long while brewing, but I do not intend on staying on in academia as an active researcher. The reasons for this are many, and will form the topic of a future post, since they aren’t relevant to the current issue. What is relevant is the fact that there will be a day when I no longer belong to an institution; that there will be a day when I no longer have access to the scientific literature. And this saddens me immensely. Because over the almost seven years (and counting!) that I’ve spent as a student of science, I’ve become increasingly reliant on the scientific literature. If I want to educate myself on a topic, it is to the scientific literature that I turn. To be denied access because leaving science makes me ‘unworthy’ is immensely discouraging. And this brings me to an even more fundamental issue:
Just like I trust in the scientific literature to educate me out of my ignorance, so do other people. Science is trusted by society. Experts and non-experts trust science to be a force of enlightenment. So we should therefore not be surprised that they want to access the scientific literature itself. This is a very important consideration, because we cannot ask of the public to trust in science and then deny them access because they aren’t ‘worthy’. That runs counter to the scientific enterprise as a catalyst of knowledge. So anyone who’s pro-science and pro-education should also be pro-access. It’s as simple as that.