Breaking barriers to knowledge

In December 2020 three top academic publishers Elsevier, Wiley, and American Chemical Society sued two overseas websites Sci-Hub and Library Genesis commonly known as LibGen for copyright infringement in a case before the Delhi High Court. The publishers wanted the court to block Sci-Hub and LibGen, which are the largest providers of ‘free downloads’ of their content, not only in India but elsewhere too. This particular case is extremely important because it can have a substantial impact on the research in particular and the academic landscape of the country in general. Now who are these websites which these publishers want banned. These websites are Sci-Hub and LibGen which allow anyone, anywhere in the world to freely download papers from scientific and academic journals, which otherwise are available under paywalls. The important thing about these websites apart from highly simple procedure to download a particular article is that these sites don’t charge anything, making it possible for poor students and scholars to access high quality content completely free. Now if these websites are banned in India which is what the publishers want from the courts, to my limited understanding this can have disastrous consequences for scientific research in the country. It is a fact of the matter that in spite of lot of advancement in everything and tremendous development in every spare of life, the world is still an unequal place; where certain sections of society in every country have more access to scientific knowledge than others. The expectations that the institutions like school as well as the universities will make this knowledge universal and available to each one of us has rather miserably failed. We believe that case could be made against these websites on copyright infringement though debatable, but banning these sites could prove harmful as this shall block the quality research content from aspiring Indian scholars. This is also dangerous because very few institutions in this country have subscriptions of these top-notch journals making it highly unlikely that our scholars could access these journals. Under the circumstances when even a top-notch institution couldn’t afford a subscription for a particular journal, how can we expect a scholar, who gets very meagre amount as scholarship, could effort to by an article whose cost is in Dollars. We need to focus on the fact that who are people who publish in these top peer reviewed journals. Most probably these are the scientists and academics who work in the public funded institutions across the world, whose salaries as well as the required infrastructure come from taxpayer’s money. How fair is it that the public who fund these institutes will pay again to these publishers. The fact of the matter is that these publishers are earning millions of rupees and have become corporate giants, without adding any substantial value to the particular article. This is an appropriate time that the academicians and scientists across different subjects will come together and break this nexus and the larger academic capitalism. We believe  that all publicly funded research  should be made available to scholars in particular and public in general free of cost so that they can build-up from the available research and can explore further frontiers of knowledge.

In an important move as reported in the leading national dailies to make scientific knowledge and data available to all, the government is proposing an open data policy that will make information generated by all publicly funded research, including its results, freely accessible to everyone. The government has also plans to buy bulk subscriptions of all the important scientific journals across the world, and provide everyone in India free access to them, which I believe shall be a milestone if actually put into practice and academics across the board should welcome it. There are issues in India as far as open access publishing is concerned and one of the concerns is that the percentage of articles published in top notch journals from Indian academics is minuscule and it is partly also our scholars don’t have the access to the top-class journals. Keeping these facts in view we are of the opinion that once the case of Sci-Hub and LibGen comes for the final decision in the honourable court, the learned judges should see all aspects of the case and should make sure that the scholars should not be devoid of quality content from these journals, which will hamper the research of the country at a very large scale. There are only two options under given circumstances; one the websites like Sci-hub and LibGen should be allowed to operate or we should be in a position to provide access to knowledge by way of subscription to these journals and furthermore the government needs to enhance the scholarship amount given to the scholars. The ball is in the court.

Manzoor Ahmad Parey is an Assistant Professor (Education), Government Degree college Bandipora Kashmir.