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Expensive Journals Drive Academics To Break Copyright Law


University libraries have been forced to cut back on the number of academic journals that they subscribe to because it has become too expensive. Some faculty are now soliciting illegal copies of articles from peers at other institutions. Others are pulling down articles from the self-described pirate website called Sci-Hub. It's based in Russia and claims to have made nearly 50 million articles available for free in violation of international copyright law. I'm joined now by Heather Joseph, who's been following this development. Her organization is called SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition. The group advocates for legal open access to academic journals. Ms. Joseph, thank you very much for joining us.

HEATHER JOSEPH: Thank you for having me.

WERTHEIMER: So how do the academic journals that are charging a lot of money for what - for their subscriptions, what is their justification?

JOSEPH: Well, the justification I think is a good one for nonprofit organizations like Scholarly Societies that really do operate on pretty much a cost recovery model. The commercial ventures, though, that have the profit margins in the 30 and 40 percent range, there really is no justification. They're profit-maximizing businesses, which is fine. The question is, should such businesses be built around information that's vital to the public's good and the public's health?

WERTHEIMER: When these scholars do articles, who gets - do they get any of that money?

JOSEPH: They're unpaid. The authors of these articles traditionally contribute the work of writing the articles, the work of reviewing and verifying the information, and they're not paid.

WERTHEIMER: I can see why universities might feel that they were paying too much.

JOSEPH: Yes, indeed.

WERTHEIMER: So now we have the pirate website Sci-Hub, which provides free access to journals. What has been the reaction to this in the academy?

JOSEPH: Well, I think researchers take for granted that they're - they've been forced into a system of workarounds to try to get access to the articles that they need to do their research. Typically, a researcher will have legal access to only between 50 and 70 percent of the articles that they need to do their work. So I think this database, Sci-Hub, was just another step in a process that researchers have sadly become used to doing.

WERTHEIMER: It's not just academics. We might all decide that we need to pull up a paper on, say - I mean, something that we all do every day is look up any diseases we are afraid we might have.

JOSEPH: That's exactly right. I think that's first and foremost the value you can see immediately. Whenever you're diagnosed or a family member is diagnosed with an illness, we just - we go to the web, and we want the latest verified information. And unfortunately, most of the articles that we'll run into will have a pay wall that will say, you need to pay $10, $15, $20, even $30 for an individual view of an article.

WERTHEIMER: I understand you have some unhappy personal experience of this.

JOSEPH: Actually, my son has Type 1 juvenile diabetes. So when he was diagnosed, of course, the first thing that I did when we got home from the hospital was try to find information that would keep him safe through the night. And I think it was my personal eye-opening experience as to just how expensive it was to try to get basic scientific information, which, by the way, much of it was funded by the NIH, institutions that my tax dollars have supported the research. So I was sort of doubly exercised over this issue of wanting to provide better, open, equitable access to this information.

WERTHEIMER: Heather Joseph, she is with the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, SPARC. Thank you very much.

JOSEPH: Thank you for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.