Wednesday 18 November 2020

Rights to writes

Science Week was last week and the science community in Ireland did its best to get science out into the public popular domain through the Zoomiverse; because in person events are still impossible. In general face-time is better but on-line is an opportunity to participate in events which would be geographically impossible. I can get to a zoomevent in Cork as easily as Dau.II who lives there. Wexford Science Café's Going Viral gig had both the main speakers dialling in from Dublin. If Dublin, why not Kazakhstan?

Why not indeed? and the Postgraduate forum of Waterford Institute of Technology, in a mighty coup, managed to get an interview with Алекса́ндра Аса́новна Элбакя́н / Alexandra Elbakyan [R,R] the creator of Sci-Hub, the pirate server which allows everyone access to the scientific literature. They also rustled up a Russian/English translator [R,L]. Despite widespread publicity, only about 40 people thought it would be worth an hour of their time to hear a quiet revolutionary. It was recorded!
I put her in the same bin as Greta Thunberg [prev] who galvanized the climate change movement. Clearly global warming is The existential crisis from which we cower, but getting the most out of the creative scientific minds on the planet is a substantial component to to solving that problem.

Caitlin Moran maintains that institutions [countries, corporations, charities] which deprive arbitrary cohorts of people from participation are stupider than those which are inclusive. It's just the math: if you prevent women from contributing you are halving the sample size from which to bounce ideas off. [Two half ideas being a solution] Insofar as women are different from men, with different ways to doing things, it's even worse. Same if you exclude la francophonie, blacks, gays. poor people: echo-chambers do not induce a creative ferment. Young Alexandra [she turned 32 on 06Nov20] is a computer programmer from Kazakhstan. Ten years ago, during her undergraduate degree, she found it impossible to get access to the scientific literature from Almaty, KZ. Kazakhstan, depending on how you squint, has a GDP per capita about 1/3 of Ireland's. Working at The Institute, it was impossible to do legitimate scientific literature searches because the suits were unwilling to fund the library's access to the scientific literature. Can't have been easier in KZ.

But, unlike me, she wasn't prepared to put her research on hold and, inspired by anonymouse, hacked a path past the commercial pay-walls to the golden seams of peer-reviewed papers. Being Aleksandra of the Generous Hand, she was happy to share her software with anyone she knew . . . and anyone they knew and <shazzam> Sci-Hub was born in 2011. It has made possible about 60 final year research projects at The Institute because my students could make a reasonable review of the literature in their chosen field. I can always ask my pals in proper universities if I really need a PDF of an article, but that's a finite resource of social capital. 

Needless to say, the Big Five academic publishers were severely pissed off that about 1 billion papers had been downloaded over the last ten years. Including several dozen served to my project students. The Big Five business model would have required each punter to pay $35 for a PDF of each paper.  I don't think anyone claims that we-the-poor-scientists owe Elsevier $35,000,000,000 because if we did have to pay $35-a-pop, we'd be, let's say, far more focussed in our reading - to the great detriment of Science, Inc. Nevertheless, a court in the US has awarded Elsevier $15 million in punitive damages against Elbakyan and Sci-Hub. She is officially now in hiding lest she gets extradited to serve time in a US penitentiary.

Last Friday "in Waterford", she seemed to be quite even-keeled about her trials [in absentia] and tribulations and was taking the fight to The Man by citing Articles 19 & 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. 

  • Article 19.
    • Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
  • Article 27.
    1. Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.
    2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.

That is a loada bollix not practically useful: more or less on par with Mr Softplay claiming Magna Carta supports his decision to open his ball-pit of spittle during the pandemic. Arm-waving about your rights in such general terms is going to butter no parsnips in court. A far more effective way to combat the profit-taking and general rapaciousness of academic publishers is through collective action. 

1) At the moment each university Librarian negotiates the best deal they can and signs a non-disclosure agreement, so that their peers are in a similarly weak position. Groups of librarians (let us call them a union?) have far better bargaining power: UCal blew off Elsevier last year

2) Each Scientist has considerable power to decide where to publish their latest findings. But they tend to go for journals with the highest impact, which are almost all commercial ventures, because their credibility, rep, promotion, all depend on "impact metrics".  Politics being the art of the possible, the scientific collective could finger the most rapacious journals and refuse to submit their work there. Collective action is far more difficult than competitive action. They could with an easier conscience refuse to referee articles pro bono for commercial publishing ventures. Some further thoughts in Sci-Pub and Sci-Hub from Rohin Francis another Elbakyan fan-boy.

On 2017 the Journal of Hymenoptera Research published a paper describing two new species of Ichneumonid [prev] parasitoid wasps Idiogramma elbakyanae and Gelanes horstmanni. That's a pretty cool way to put one over on an annoying rival! although the [Russian] lead author on the JHR paper wasn't coming from that direction.  "The [first] species is named in honour of Alexandra Elbakyan (Kazakhstan/Russia), creator of the web-site Sci-Hub, in recognition of her contribution to making scientific knowledge available for all researchers". Nevertheless, Elbakyan was not amused and, seemingly pulled the Sci-Hub plug on ".ru" All 150 million inhabitants of Mother Russia in retaliation. The gloves are off! 

Most science people agree that there is something rotten in the heart of scientific publishing. Several things actually. The rich corporations are getting richer by the cartel while the poor bloody infantry of science can neither afford access to the literature nor the cost of publication. Actually, most reputable journals will publish worthy papers if the authors declare that they have no money for the page charges: doubtless it will help if you hail from The South. While on the wings are a buzzing swarm of parasitoids predatory publishers who will publish any old shite if you pay them a fee of several hundred US$s. 

The world would be a poorer place without Alexandra Elbakyan. Bitcoin is the only way you can contribute to her cause, because Paypal won't entertain her.

More women in Science

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