«Like Merton Said and Sci-Hubs do»

The Library Publishing Forum 2021 was held on Zoom, May 10-14. Below, we publish the text of Mikael Böök’s presentation ”How to cooperate with Sci-Hub and Libgen (if at all)?”:

Hi, my name is Mikael Böök, and I live in Finland. The subject of my presentation is the extrajudicial publishing of scientific articles and books, which is also called piracy. I thought I would begin with a little song. It’s a cover of a hit from the nineteen sixties by Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. It was called Little Red Riding Hood, but I have have written some new lyrics for my band:

Who’s that I see walking in these woods? Why, it’s the Scholarly Library: 

Hey there Scholarly Library

You sure are looking good

You’re everything a Big Tech Clan could want!

Scholarly Library!

I don’t think that a library should

go walking with this spooky crowd alone.

Is copyright a human right? Oh no!

But knowledge is a human right

and science is a commons, too

like Merton said and Sci-Hubs do

I sure think you ought to admit

that science is not property

so give it all with no delay

for everybody free to share

Hey there Scholarly Library

You sure are looking good

You’re everything a Big Tech Clan could want!

(The song can be listened to via Youtube https://youtu.be/Z55Jd-JZbGQ )

See the presentation below:

I will soon be back to the wording of that song, but before that I have a motto that I want to tell you about. The motto reads like this: “For if a thing is not diminished by being shared with others, it is not rightly owned if it is only owned and not shared.” Now, this sentence from St Augustine’s treatise on Christian doctrine, written one thousand six hundred years ago, is of course not about scientific knowledge, as we think of scientific knowledge today. It is about Scripture, the Christian Gospel. The interpretation of the word of God was the science of Augustine and his time. And yet the sentence also applies to our modern scientific knowledge because the value of scientific knowledge is not diminished either when it is freely copied and shared.

The idea of this table is to show “the librarians caught between the journal pirates and publishers”. The background color – magenta for the publishers and the libraries, and grey for the pirates – are meant to indicate that there has usually been much interaction and communication between Publishers and Libraries, but much less so between the Libraries and the Pirates; the Pirates just do not count in “the balance”. The upper row of the table hardly needs explanation: institutionally, the big scientific Publishers are private business corporations; the Libraries are social & political institutions with relative autonomy, and the Pirates are a kind of autonomous institutions although not recognized as such. To be sure there is an ongoing effort to institutionalize the Pirates as a political party. (The PP has currently one representative in the European Parliament.) From the juridical perspective, Publishers are granted private ownership of much scientific knowledge while librarians are not. On the other hand, Libraries are supposed to give access to knowledge, which is widely recognized as a human right and statutory principle. Pirates, finally, are largely considered to be extrajudicial because they are against copyrights and the present intellectual property regime. 

Regarding ideologies, it’s more difficult to say. I believe that the big scientific publishers of today tend to support the kind of capitalist globalism that permeates the Big Tech corporations and the World Economic Forum. This kind of globalism has also spread to some library managers and to IFLA. The ideology of the Library, on the other hand, has a strong component of Socialism. This Socialism could be Christian or “Augustinian” (in accordance with the sentence of St Augustin which I quoted at the beginning), or it could be related to egalitarian political movements such as the worker’s movement, or it could have its roots in modern science itself. However, I should also like to point to the strong “methodological nationalism” of the library profession. This component might be caused by the dependence of the Library on the national government for financing. Why did I refer to Merton in the song? Well, in the 1940ies, American sociologist Robert Merton famously stated that “Communism” is one of four Institutional Imperatives of science, the three others being “Universalism”, “Disinterestedness” and “Organized skepticism”. However, because of the methodological nationalism of the librarians, I have so far reserved the Communist imperative for the pirates.

A quick look at Sci-Hub

To give a short presentation of Sci-hub one may start by saying that it is a website. The homepage, with its single search field might bring Google’s homepage to mind, but Sci-Hub is NOT a search-engine. This was emphatically pointed out to me by Alexandra Elbakyan, the creator and maintainer of Sci-Hub, when I interviewed her at the beginning of this year. So what is Sci-Hub? Personally, I should like to define it as a scholarly library of scientific articles. The website is a simple user interface to the library catalog. There is no “Advanced search” so if you enter “Einstein”, or “Covid-19”, you’ll get the answer “article not found”. You have to know precisely what article you are looking for. On the other hand, chances are good that you will find it if you know the DOI or PubMed Identifier. Then you’ll get a download link.

The “About page” says: “at this time the widest possible distribution of research papers, as well as of other scientific or educational sources, is artificially restricted by copyrights laws”, but “the Sci-Hub project, running from 5th September 2011 is challenging the status quo.” – Over 85 million research papers are found in the Sci-Hub library. – I would have liked to be able to show you some statistics and figures indicating the geographical spread of the users of Sci-Hub, but Alexandra Elbakyan complained to be overwhelmed with work and did not accept to provide me with fresh statistics for this presentation. From the excellent March 2016 article about Sci-Hub in Science magazine we know, however, that the downloads rate was around 5 million per month that year, and that Sci-Hub is heavily used by students ad researchers all over the world. The title of Bohannon’s article was: WHO IS DOWNLOADING PIRATED PAPERS? EVERYONE.

Let’s sharpen the picture of how Sci-Hub differs from other scholarly libraries. “Scientific knowledge should be available for every person regardless of their income, social status, geographical location etc”, Sci-Hub proclaims. I believe many, or perhaps most, librarians would sign on to this statement. Yet university libraries, for instance, tend to restrict access in many ways. And while Sci-Hub advocates for the cancellation of intellectual property, other scholarly libraries do not attack the present intellectual property regime as such. Sci-Hub supports the Open Access movement, but retains a critical or at least skeptical attitude. In my interview with Elbakyan, I asked for her opinion about Plan S, the Open access project of the EU. She answered that, I quote: “unlike Sci-Hub, Plan S does not target the core issue that prevents free spread of information online: Copyright law. They only want to add a workaround instead of targeting the central issue. Instead of doing the right thing – setting science and information free – they are creating government-controlled science.”

[4. http://www.sci-hub.se (community)] Now, a word about how Sci-Hub is financed and about its community. Now, Sci-Hub being a pirate site and illegal, it is financed by way of donations, and the donations are in Bitcoins. Is this financing model realistic? Well, given 5 million monthly downloads, if 1 downloader per one 1000 donated 1 €, then this would generate 5.000 € per month. Maybe this would be enough for Alexandra’s salary and covering the costs of the site? Alexandra Elbakyan certainly enjoys at least mental support from many people, yet the community of Sci-Hub stays underground.

Library Genesis

Something also needs to be said about pirate sites which offer both books and articles. Among these, Library Genesis, usually called Libgen, with its mirror sites such as ZLibrary, is probably number one. As far as I understand, Libgen also successively became the repository for research papers that SciHub had scraped from the World-Wide web. So there is a symbiotic relationship between Sci-Hub and Libgen. The origins of Libgen stretch back to the reading culture of Soviet Russia and its underground mirror, the Samizdat. Today the Libgen shadow library offers millions of books. As you can see, I have entered an author’s name into its search field.

Here are the hits from the search. I am interested in the book “Shadow libraries”, this book, by the way, happens to be published under a creative commons license and is thus open access. I click on that, whereafter I am offered various alternative sites and ways to retrieve the e-book.

I choose Zlibrary, and now I can download this e-book and get to know a lot more about Access to Knowledge in Higher Education. 

The interdependence

The title of this presentation, as you remember, is How to cooperate with Sci-Hub and Libgen (if at all)? You probably have sensed that I am much in favor of such cooperation. There indeed is co-operation, although neither side wants to talk aloud about its existence. Because the Illegal scholarly libraries do acquire most of their materials from legal scholarly libraries. And the Legal scholarly libraries, for their part, are to a significant extent completed by illegal scholarly libraries.
So there is in other words, an interdependence that would seem to necessitate some kind of cooperation.

A vision of library publishing

It is now time to clarify the thought experiment that I have announced in my abstract of this presentation. To do so I shall summarize my vision of the future of Library Publishing. The first point of my vision is that Librarians and pirates will cooperate and do common cause to overthrow the intellectual property regime. And the second point is that Library publishing will grow immensely and will finally outcompete the commercial scholarly publishing. Now, this vision does not cover all aspects of Library Publishing. It does, however, cover the publishing of research papers and scientific books. It would mean then, that this activity is no longer bound by laws of intellectual property, but rather by laws of intellectual commons.

Two Fundamental Questions

This vision however leads to two fundamental questions. Can Capitalism survive if Intellectual Property is abolished? That is the first question, and it is by no means a new one. In order to grasp its scope, let’s remind ourselves that “intellectual property” also means industrial patents, for instance patents on vaccines, just to mention a very acute and specific international problem. Personally, I believe physcist and science historian John Desmond Bernal was right when he stated that “The scientific and computer age is necessarily a Socialist one.” But the issue is complicated. Another important voice in the long debate on intellectual property is chemist and philosopher Michael Polanyi. Well, Polanyi was also of the opinion that intellectual property, particularly in the form of industrial patents, is nonsense, and yet he was an Anti-Socialist who wanted to preserve free market Capitalism. 

The second fundamental question reads: Would the abolition of Intellectual property be possible within our present international political system? Here, we come back to the methodological nationalism of the libraries. The present library systems are subordinated to the national governments and to the economic and military rivalries of the great powers. Is the library profession capable of breaking out of the present Orwellian world-system that is kept together only by the constant threat of mutual annihilation? At the meeting of IFLA’s Special Interest Group on Library Publishing in Dublin two years ago, I asked the librarians and their IFLA to join the International Campaign for the Abolition of Nuclear Weapons, and to support the United Nations Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons. That treaty has since been ratified by over 50 countries and is a now an international law. Is it too much to ask the librarians to take this step towards real independence?

Thank you !


Bohannon, John: Who is downloading pirated papers? Everyone (Science, April 28, 2016)


Bernal, John D : The Social Function of Science, MIT Press 1967

Elbakyan, Alexandra The Sci-Hub Website, https://www.sci-hub.se

Blog, https://engineuring.wordpress.com/ ;

“Why do we live in a world where libraries are illegal?” An interview with Alexandra Elbakyan

(Biblioteket tar saka, January 24, 2021), https://bibliotekettarsaka.com

Johns, Adrian: Piracy. The Intellectual Property Wars from Gutenberg to Gates. Chicago UP 2009.

Karaganis, Joe (ed.): Shadow Libraries. Access to Knowledge in Higher Education. MIT 2018.

Merton, Robert K: “The Institutional Imperatives of Science” (1942), in Barnes, Barry (ed.): 

Sociology of Science, Penguin 1972 pp 65-79.

Polanyi, Michael: Personal Knowledge, Paperback edition, Chicago UP 1974

The master slide is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

It makes use of the works of Kelly Loves Whales and Nick Merritt.

Notes for the discussion at the Library Publishing Forum

My presentation (above) was followed by a 10 min. Q & A session, and then by a very interesting presentation on the so called transformative agreements (between commercial publishers, researchers and libraries) by Dave Ghamandi. In a separate blog entry I shall return to Ghamandi’s presentation and other inputs to the discussions at the LPC Forum 2021. Below, please find some notes I had prepared in advance in case somebody would ask me what steps I think that librarians should or could take in order to increase their interaction/cooperation with Sci-Hub and Library Genesis. That question was then actually put to me by a member of the Program Committee at the beginning of the Q & A session.

Notes By M.B. May 14, 2021

* Publishing is proactive and therefore political. The politics of scholarly publishing is Communism, Universalism, Disinterestedness, and organized Skepticism.

*  Invite Alexandra Elbakyan (“a voice missing in the discussion”? ) to present and discuss open access at the next Library Publishing Forum.

* The time has come to start building the international library-based internet cloud for an open science. The libraries of the world, not GAFAM, should provide its open and decentralized technical infrastructure. [ The previous day Kaitlin Thaney, Executuve Director of Invest in Open Infrastructure, had given a keynote speech on this vast subject.]

* The incompatibility of Intellectual Property with Library Publishing, Open Science and a Sustainable Development.

*´It´s good Biden wants to suspend vaccine patents. But the whole rotten system needs overhaul´(headline from The Guardian May 7, 2021)

*  Keep in mind that nuclear weapons are unlawful since January 2021 and refuse library involvement in the making of nuclear weapons.

* The report Schools of Mass Destruction: American Universities in the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Complex found that nearly 50 U.S. universities are involved in the research and design of U.S. nuclear weapons, largely in secret and in contradiction of their mission statements. 

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