Scholarly Publishing Has Its Napster Moment

It has become widely known that scholarly publishing has been hit by its own version of Napster, with Alexandra Elbakyan’s creation of Sci-Hub, which offers up to 48 million pirated journal articles and, as we have more recently learned, hundreds of university press books through its dark-web companion site LibGen. Elbakyan’s site, which she initiated in 2011 when she was a graduate student in Kazakhstan, has since been sued for infringing and other causing “irreparable harm” to Elsevier’s copyright. The suit heard by the Southern District of New York Court has resulted in a preliminary injunction that managed to close the site, only to have it reappear out of reach in the world of the dark web.

Although I was surprised to find myself named, along with Timothy Gower at Cambridge, by Elbakyan in her letter to the presiding judge, what she has achieved is hardly the sustainable model of an open access publishing economy that many of us — who it should be noted have the access to research that she is missing — have been working to establish through various research and development initiatives.


Click the image to see a full-scale copy of this chart.

If the Napster analogy, however, does come readily to mind with Sci-Hub, it should serve as a reminder of how a well-entrenched industry can be caught napping in the face of technological changes, as it then struggles to control the rate of change, in the face of new economies and systems. The music industry is a prime instance of this, as neatly demonstrated by a recent New York Times article “In Shift to Streaming, Music Business Has Lost Billions,” Ben Sisario and Ken Russell on March 24, 2016. It included a very clear picture of the extent of both flux in technologies and decline in sales volume. While sales are leveling out, the form of delivery is still undergoing radical change (including the return of vinyl).

Among media industries, the publishing of scholarly journals has gone through an equally dramatic digitization, which has all but displaced print as a medium for sharing research results. Yet financially, one can see a dramatic difference between music and research by comparing sales figures, as I have done with my mashup of the Times’ graph to which I’ve added the four available data points for the total sales income of English-language science, technology, and medicine (STM) journals, drawn from the industry’s professional association.

The first thing to note is that STM annual sales growth of around six percent a year is reasonable enough, if it is seen as a combination of inflation and the growth in the number of articles published, which increases roughly three percent annually, according to Bornmann and Mutz and others.

What is to be questioned or commended, perhaps, is the scholarly publishing industry’s ability to cross the great digital divide, as well as the great 2008 recession, without the revenue disruptions suffered by other media fields, such as the music industry. Or another way to look at this is to wonder at the music industry serving its audience in 2014 for about 40 percent less than it cost that audience in 2006. And it is doing so in ways that appear to enable more people to listen to a greater variety of music, at least to judge by looking around wherever people are working or congregating, earbuds on or at the ready.

Yes, some artists feel shortchanged by music streaming royalties of a fraction of a cent, with Taylor Swift at the forefront, noting that “it isn’t as easy today as it was 20 years ago to have a multi-platinum-selling album, and as artists, that should challenge and motivate us.” Such concerns should only heighten our interest in comparing how her industry manages to offer more to listeners for considerably less to what is going on with research and scholarship.

The question for the scholarly publishing industry, led by the STM journals, is whether something like the music industry’s post-Napster dip still lies ahead for research journals, given Sci-Hub and related phenomenon. Can we look forward to new players offering new forms of research streaming, with some researchers, following the vinyl trend, turning to letterpress editions on fine paper of their favorite journals? And when this disruptive dip does arrive, will it similarly free up billions of dollars in savings, as happened with music, that will then go back into research and teaching?

Or does that miss the obvious? Haven’t waves of digital innovation also swept through scholarly publishing with streaming-like innovations like, PubMed Central, SciELO, Redalyc, PLOS One, African Journals Online, Directory of Open Access Journals, and the list goes on. What about the disruptive rise of publishing’s new open source software tools, such as LOCKSS, DSpace, and Zotero, as well as Open Journal Systems (which I work on)? If we have, in this sense, already witnessed the great digital reconfiguration of scholarly publishing, then it might appear that the core publishing industry has handily absorbed the post-Napster dip in revenue and costs, while continuing to head, as the mashup suggests, onwards and upwards.

Some may say it is too early to tell about such a dip in scholarly publishing, and others will protest that I compare apples and oranges, with little to be learned between them. What I hold is that the academic community needs to exhibit Taylor Swift-like acuity in defense of what are no less the rights associated with our work. We need to be part of a legal and sustainable reconfiguration of value within scholarly publishing, which means attending to the great variety of innovations that are emerging, and which for me, at this point, involves exploring the potential of open access publishing cooperatives.



  1. David Collier-Brown

    A first thought (I’m at work (;-))

    The harm will be worst where the publishing and printing process doesn’t add much value to the naked data, and the individual article/book is small. In those cases, I can send the data to a cheap office printer.

  2. David Collier-Brown

    Followup: Elsvier complain resulted in a domain-name seizure,but not their IP-address, or its domain on the Tor-network, – http://scihub22266oqcxt.onion/.