Scientists engage in civil disobedience, share copyrighted papers

October 26, 2015 • 8:30 am

I can’t say that I’m encouraging this activity as that would be encouraging scientists to break the law, but I will call your attention to a piece in The Atlantic describing a new development. Scientists, or anyone, can now request paywalled academic papers on Twi**er, and authors or others who have the paper (you surely have to use Twi**er to see the request) can respond by sending the pdf file to the requestor.  Added bonus: the hashtag is cat-related. An excerpt:

Most academic journals charge expensive subscriptions and, for those without a login, fees of $30 or more per article. Now academics are using the hashtag #icanhazpdf to freely share copyrighted papers.

Scientists are tweeting a link of the paywalled article along with their email address in the hashtag—a riff on the infamous meme of a fluffy cat’s “I Can Has Cheezburger?” line. Someone else who does have access to the article downloads a pdf of the paper and emails the file to the person requesting it. The initial tweet is then deleted as soon as the requester receives the file.

Andrea Kuszewski, a San Francisco-based cognitive scientist who started the hashtag, tells Quartz that “the biggest rule is that you don’t thank people.” Those who willingly share papers are, in most cases, breaking copyright laws. But Kuszewski says it’s an important act of “civil disobedience,” adding “it’s not an aggressive act but it’s just a way of saying things need to change.”

Yes, indeed: things need to change. It’s simply absurd for academic papers to charge $30 or more per paper. Access to papers is the lifeblood of many scientists, and to grossly inflate the prices of single papers in this way is as invidious—though not as deadly—as the practices of those entrepeneurs who have raised the prices of pills manyfold after getting rights to the drug. There is no justification for companies like Elsevier to charge so much money to get a single pdf and, in fact, I’ve always maintained that the American public, who funds most research through government agencies like the NSF and NIH, have a right to see that research without paying for it. Open access journals are the way to go.

3½ years ago I urged scientist/readers to boycott the publisher Elsevier, notorious for price-gouging libraries and restricting access to scientific information. My own boycott still stands: I refused to review a paper for an Elsevier journal this weekend, and told them why. I’m heartened to see that the petition urging the boycott, “The cost of knowledge,” now has 15,261 signers. And you can still sign it. But Elsevier isn’t the only culprit.

h/t: Cindy

45 thoughts on “Scientists engage in civil disobedience, share copyrighted papers

  1. There are a few of us bloggers who routinely write about peer-reviewed research, but don’t have access to an institutional subscription to any of the major journals (much less the many specialist journals). I got my subscription to Science for $50, but they haven’t run a special in several years, so I haven’t renewed it.

    Part of the fun for me is to contact authors about their work. Sometimes we have a nice conversation about the paper. But I’m sure it’s not a much fun for them to get requests for papers all the time.

    1. It’s good when they get on “ResearchGate”, or some similar service. Makes corresponding a breeze, as well as automate the information-sharing process — whenever it is possible w/o breaking copyright. (many times pre-publication drafts are available, too)

      1. I don’t have a publication record (all commercially confidential stuff), but I do have a corporate email address and a professional society. I didn’t have any problem getting onto Researchgate, and occasionally get useful stuff from it.
        It’s quite collegial, and doesn’t spam me senseless with corporate vulture-mails the same way that LinkedIn does.

  2. I’ve never understood the exorbitant fees either, as anybody off the street can walk into the nearest college and, as long as they have the given reference, copy the darned articles to take out. At least that’s the way it is here w/ Colorado College. The publishers are already raking it in from all the library, school & medical center reference depts. with subscriptions. To then provide peer-review to these jerks (when more often than not, the papers should’ve been returned without review) just adds insult to injury.

    1. In theory, that’s the way it is in Aberdeen. Except that now you have to sign a visitor’s book to get into the library itself (thefts have occurred), and you need to use your student ID card to operate the payment box on the photocopiers (the coin-based machines broke down more often). Of course, you can get an external user’s photocopy card … but there does not appear to be any process for topping it up by cash or credit card, and the last time I tried I gave up after an hour’s wait …
      I should have used the time to try Kafka’s “The Castle,” again.

        1. Don’t know. I’ve never had reason to try to park anywhere on university ground. Including when I was a student (years before I learned to drive and got a license).

  3. I strongly approve this message. But as it catches on the task of sending out lots of pdfs may become onerous, especially for authors of popular papers.
    Every year I do literature searches for various papers for my senior capstone class, and am continually exasperated by the # of oooolld papers, 20-30 years old, that still have a very high charge for the paper. What total crap. I never pay it, but instead look for a paper that is free.

  4. ACS ( has some egregiously high rates. Thankfully I am a physicists and the supplies a well established, organized resource to share papers.

    Also (mentioned above) allows papers to be shared (volunteer author download). How they make money, I have no idea.

    1. How they make money, I have no idea.

      Job adverts? I do seem to get job adverts with my weekly sumaries. I think. I just stop reading when I get to that bit of the email.

  5. What has not changed is something called perceived value. Years ago, when you bought a software package like WordPerfect or an operating system update, you received an operating manual in the form of a book or binder. The physical package had a substantial heft to it and made it easier to justify charging hundreds of dollars. The same goes for academic publications. Delivering a journal or magazine on paper makes it easier to get subscribers to pay for a product they can hold.

    Now, software is delivered on a CD-ROM with maybe an instruction sheet for installation, and the documentation is either on the CD or online via web. The same goes for newspapers, magazines and other publications that have gone to primarily online distribution. Consumer perception still sees more value in a product that can be held and paged through than something that only exists electronically.

    Paper documentation and publications also have the advantage of not requiring a device to be read. They can be carried anywhere, studied anytime (I like to read in bed, and without a tablet or reader, it’s rather hard to do that on a PC). You can have an open manual on your desk for reference while you’re learning to use a new piece of software. All you need is a pen (and maybe a Post-It™ to add your own notes to the book or paper.

    People just haven’t caught up to the notion that a pdf has the same perceived value as a book, magazine, newspaper or academic publication. That will happen, but we’re not quite there yet.

    1. Or, if you have broadband, software is downloaded from the distribution’s repository. (If you’re running Linux or Android or somesuch). Even some free/OSS Windows apps (not too sure about Apple though).

      If it has a PDF manual you can always print it out, or just the relevant chapters.

      In fact, for me now, paper versions almost have a negative value. I’ve got far too much dead-tree stuff (~1500 books) and I need to get rid of a lot of it, just to make room.

      The other advantage of PDF’s (or most digital formats) is you can search for half-remembered key words or phrases much faster.

      Horses for courses, some coffee-table books are still nice, as is a paperback to read in bed (though an E-book would do for that).


  6. I’m lucky enough that the school I’m attending now doesn’t seem to care when I search for and download .pdfs that aren’t related to my major.

  7. This is tricky. I think as much as possible should be open access but the alternative of open access is a pay to publish system as far as I understand. What big publishers need is a way to make money otherwise standards will fall & no one will be bothered to publish books – it will be self-publishing & there will be no quality control. Some academic societies have associations with universities so you can get membership of the university library & access to e-journals on site. Some like Birkbeck (central London) have a sort of ‘membership’ of the university for £x per year which then allows access to e-resources.

    Always check Pubmed for free content – there is a lot more now.

  8. What’s weird is that journos have suddenly caught onto this. The hashtag has been going for over a year, and I have both used it and provided PDF for people. The BBC website had a particularly silly article about how “scientists are using a secret codeword to encourage internet piracy”. I can forgive Professor Ceiling Cat Emeritus for not knowing as he hates Tw*tter and all things tw**tish – Matthew Cobb

    1. The journals may have been waiting for a certain tipping point, reasoning that before this tip became widely known there was no use advertising it.

  9. Although not an academic, I have a number of historical interests. While I feel that journals should charge for non-subscription access to articles, the prices they charge are sufficient to keep me going to inter-library loan. Academia as a public good it is not.

  10. As a patent attorney working on mostly pharmaceutical patents, I often cite journal articles and other documents in applications, typically to make a point that some item of information is well-known (so I don’t have to justify it later if an examiner questions it). So I end up buying a number of journal articles – and the charges are passed on to the client. $30 is not cheap, but bearable (even if I have to buy several to find the one that’s really helpful); but I am now seeing some journals charging $50 or more for an article. And older articles are a problem, as many journals don’t have an on-line backfile.

  11. So-called intellectual property is a serious problem for our society. It started with the lofty aim of promoting the publication and dissemination of ideas, but it’s long since had the opposite effect. Mostly, it’s just a gravy train for a certain class of parasites.

    What Elsevier is to science journals, Boosey and Hawkes is to music. Even a century after something was written, B&H will still be charging exorbitant prices for the privilege of even renting the printed parts — and that doesn’t even get you the “right” to perform the work!

    So, yeah. Fuck copyright. The “owners” had their chance, and screwed us over royally. They’ve quite literally stolen the public domain from the public, so why should we even pretend to respect their claims?


    1. I agree with you on ‘intellectual property’ (in this context I’m inclined to echo Karl Marx – ‘property is theft’).

      Copyright is far from the worst abuse of it. Patents and their accompanying patent trolls, ‘look and feel’, and big companies using over-broad interpretations of sweepingly-worded patents to squash competition, are even more evil.
      Just imagine Boosey & Hawkes owned a patent for ‘five notes in an ascending sequence’…

      Copyright _can_ be used for good purposes. I’d quote the Free Software Foundation’s use of it to enforce the GPL (General Public Licence) under which Linux and other software is distributed. It’s ironic that a restrictive device such as copyright can be used to defend a right to free distribution but there you are… guns can be used to defend freedom.

      But that’s an exception, and of course if there was no copyright or ‘intellectual property’ vultures, neither the FSF or the GPL would be necessary.


  12. Several universities in Denmark (and probably in other countries as well) have negotiated with the large publishers that they can make at least preprint editions of their scientific output available for free- even after publication. That is an important step, although it would be better of course if the final version can be put up for download for all.

  13. I’m not sure that there is any copyright violation going on here. If the pdf is supplied by the author of the article, then there is no copyright violation– most journals provide a pdf to the author for precisely this purpose (in lieu of the old custom of hard copy reprints). If it is supplied by a third party, there could be some question of copyright, but if a single copy is supplied for educational or research purposes at no cost, then it sounds to me that it may well fall under fair use. The difference these days is that Twitter makes it easy to ask if anyone in the world has a copy, whereas in the past you would email someone you know to see if they had a copy, or, even further in the past, mail a reprint request card to the author.

  14. I agree, the fees to purchase papers on line are outrageous but, if you need it, you need it. If any industry was ripe for a paradigm shift to a collaborative model – e.g., Linux – it’s scientific publishing.

  15. In connexion with Canada’s recent election that was preceded by a war on science by Harper & his pals and the ‘free-market’ profiting from science that makes doing science difficult that is described in your post, here is David Roberts writing in ‘Vox: Energy & Environment’ about the Republican assault on science in the US:

    ‘The thing is: The Benghazi committee is not even the worst committee in the House. I’d argue that the House science committee, under the chairmanship of Lamar Smith (R-TX), deserves that superlative for its open-ended, Orwellian attempts to intimidate some of the nation’s leading scientists and scientific institutions.
    ‘The science committee’s modus operandi is similar to the Benghazi committee’s — sweeping, catchall investigations, with no specific allegations of wrongdoing or clear rationale, searching through private documents for out-of-context bits and pieces to leak to the press, hoping to gain short-term political advantage — but it stands to do more lasting long-term damage.’

    That is a small extract from a longer article which is well-worth reading.

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