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Will Indian researchers lose free access to scientific papers?


On December 21, 2020, academic publishers Elsevier Ltd, Wily Pvt Ltd, and the American Chemical Society sued the SciHub and Library Genesis websites, also known as LibGen, for copyright infringement in the High Court of Delhi, demanding that ISPs permanently block them in India. .

These websites are a primary source for researchers in India, making thousands of otherwise paid research papers available free of charge. Because, as the note, “Research should be free to read.” Having intellectual property restrictions in research limits access and flow of knowledge while science can only advance if it is widely read and discussed.

Elsevier owns more than 2,600 journals, including the Lancet, and all are chargeable and can reach thousands of dollars, making the latest knowledge difficult for researchers to access.

Notably, Elsevier has filed a series of complaints against Alexandra Elbakyan, the founder of SciHub, across the world. In the United States, the publishing giant sued her and won $ 15 million in damages.

Not being a US citizen, Elbakyan did not pay the penalty. Similar cases followed in Sweden, Russia, Belgium, France and Britain with varying verdicts. Now a case is underway in India.

The deal is huge on the part of academics in India, with increasing demands to protect websites due to disparate resources in third world countries and corporate greed in academic publishing.

Here are the latest developments in the case.

The case

The first hearing took place on December 24 last year where Elbakyan was to pledge not to upload any new documents to SciHub until the next hearing, which was set for January 6. In January, the engagement was extended until the next hearing.

On September 5, SciHub released 23 37,229 fee-based research papers that had been blocked due to the court-imposed restriction as Elbakyan expired his engagement. The editors quickly filed a claim charging Elbakyan with contempt of the original court order, and said Elbakyan was wrong in assuming the restriction had expired.

Responding in an affidavit on September 8, Elbakyan’s lawyer argued that the undertaking was last extended on January 6 and expired on March 8, when the court last met. and did not extend it further.

At the last hearing on September 15, counsel for Elbakyan submitted a compilation of judgments from the Delhi, Allahabad and Madras District Courts showing that an “undertaking does not extend beyond the date on which it is extended ”.

When the publishers’ lawyer, Amit Sibal, claimed that they would suffer irreparable loss if Elbakyan was not prevented from uploading new research papers to SciHub and was not held responsible for allegedly violating the undertaking , Judge C Hari Shankar asked: Done in the past nine months when this undertaking was not in effect? “

Sibal replied that because Elbakyan had continued to abide by the pledge in letter and spirit until September, his clients had no reason to do anything.

As for the previous judgments cited by Elbakyan’s lawyer, Sibal asserted that they concerned extended appointments for a fixed period and not indefinite appointments “until the next hearing”.

Judge Shankar then gave the defendants until September 18 to submit their responses to Sibal’s request and set the next hearing for September 21.

The reaction

In the past, and around the world boycotted Elsevier newspapers. In India, scientists like the Nature Conservation Foundation’s TR Shankar Raman have refused to publish in, or review and edit, Elsevier journals.

“This is absurd,” Raman said. “These commercial publishers are just for-profit companies. Research is funded by public institutions or charities, researchers do all the work. Yet researchers even have to pay publishers to access their own work. Even if you want to post an open access article with these companies, you have to pay them hundreds and hundreds of dollars. This creates a system in which developing countries are simply unable to publish.

How could a ban on SciHub and LibGen affect India? “It will be a huge setback. It will cripple people who don’t have great institutions that have access to literature. Over the past few months, as SciHub did not upload articles, I have been contacted by a number of people in India and abroad as they do not have access to new research.

Vinayak Dasgupta, assistant professor of English at Shiv Nadar University and digital archivist, argued that until publishers drastically cut costs and ditch the profit model for cost-priced models, SciHub and LibGen would continue to exist.

“If the generation of knowledge is a fundamental need of society, we must think of sustainable research infrastructures adapted to each country,” he added. “Until these are established, the need and use of SciHub and LibGen will continue. “

Tanuja Kothiyal, professor at the School of Liberal Studies at Ambedkar University, said: “In the pandemic, and otherwise for my own research, we have relied heavily on LibGen and SciHub for access to research papers that otherwise , are locked in databases that researchers in the Global South cannot access. SciHub and LibGen allow students to access material that they might not otherwise be able to access.

Kothiyal noted that research funding, university rankings and even access to core repositories like JSTOR are determined by “impact factors” now that countries in the South can no longer respond. This creates inequalities, as a low NAAC or NIRF score could mean that teachers and students do not have access to the materials they need to teach and learn to do quality research.

Abi Tamim Vanak, associate researcher at the Ashoka Trust for Research on Ecology and the Environment, Bangalore, went so far as to say that Elbakyan deserved a Nobel Prize. “SciHub has been my privileged resource for accessing paid scientific literature. Alexandra Elbakyan has done more for science than any of the major publishing houses in the world. It freed knowledge from the clutches of corporate greed, ”he added. “She deserves a Nobel Prize.”

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