Should coronavirus research be freely accessible to the public? A group of hackers thinks so, and is willing to break the law if it can save lives.
A midst this generation-defining public health crisis, the lack of universal access to coronavirus research articles has become a cause for concern, especially for the medical and scientific communities in the developing world.
Those fighting to treat COVID-19 are undermanned, undersupplied, and overwhelmed by the virus’ impact and the lack of resources available to understand it. Many have begun to ask why potentially life-saving research is being hidden behind pricey paywalls.
The Coronavirus Research Paywalls
In the academic community, paywalls exist primarily as a way for publishers to pay for the marketing, formatting, and distributions of scholarly articles. Publishers also claim that paywalls serve to free academics from the demands of the market.
Instead of being forced into researching and writing on topics which are more likely to sell, paywalls allow these individuals to get compensated for work which they’re truly passionate about.
Publishing companies have concern that without paywalls, there would be a heightened possibility of corruption and exploitation. Researchers could be forced into topics and findings which validate political or social leanings, thus eliminating academic integrity.
These publishers claim that paywalls are meant to guard the sanctity of academic research. However, others question whether this is in fact their primary motive, as well as if it should be.
Denying Access to Those Who Need it Most
Paywalls, which require a paid subscription (or access via university enrollment), block access to scientific research and make a significant amount of money doing so. The paid publishing of these articles is a multibillion-dollar industry with top publishers boasting a profit margin between 35-40%.
The articles are priced at a rate far too expensive for the average consumer, oftentimes upwards of $50 each. Schools and universities are forced to spend millions per year for subscriptions to these archives.
The cost of subscribing to academic research journals has risen by 300% above inflation since 1986, while academic library budgets have risen by only 79% over that time.
Paywalled research articles are often priced at upwards of $50 each.
What further aggravates this issue is that the public pays for much of this research in the first place. The federal government allocates $140 billion annually to research and development, meaning taxpayers are funding the research and then having to pay to view the findings.
The dangers of this system have become increasingly apparent in recent weeks due to the rapid spread of COVID-19 and the immediate need for access to any and all coronavirus research that is available.
Valuable information is being hidden from those in developing countries who desperately need access to every single resource available. Seeing this as a monumental concern, a modern-day Robin Hood went to work to break through the paywalls and open up access to the bounty of coronavirus research online.
The Robin Hood of Science
One Reddit user who goes by the name of “Shrine” found it absurd that thousands of studies on the coronavirus were hidden behind paywalls and accessible only to those who could afford them.
“I realized that there were people dying and that the death rate could be higher as a result of a lack of access to the articles,” explains Shrine, who preferred to remain anonymous.
“Any little piece of information that we can glean from previous scientific research on pandemics, epidemics, viruses, or vaccines has suddenly become relevant and agencies all over the world need access to all of these articles.”
Shrine found and illegally downloaded more than 5,000 coronavirus research papers created from 1968 through 2020, using a website called “Sci-Hub.” He then released all of the articles on Reddit and within hours had thousands of seeders accessing the research.
Shrine illegally downloaded and shared over 5,000 coronavirus research papers on Reddit.
Attempting to make his vigilante operation legitimate, Shrine tried to appeal directly to the publishing companies themselves by creating a petition on Change.org asking them to remove the paywalls in order to help individuals and organizations research the coronavirus.
The petition got hundreds of signatures within a few days and was successful in increasing the amount of coronavirus research papers available online from just a few thousand to over 32,000.
Shrine’s efforts continued with a petition to the International Organization of Standards that effectively released paywalled information to help engineers build ventilators, as of April 9th.
While Shrine’s Reddit post was obviously illegal, he believes the practice of hiding valuable information behind expensive paywalls is what’s really unethical. Recent history also points to the danger of these paywalls during times of crisis.
Danger of Paywalls During the Ebola Outbreak
This isn’t the first time paywalls have been brought into question during a pandemic. Valuable research which could have stifled the Ebola outbreak in Liberia was inaccessible because of these paywalls, so it’s understandable that Shrine would consider his work a “necessary evil.”
After the Ebola outbreak in 2014 which ravaged West Africa, researchers found articles that actually warned of an Ebola outbreak in Liberia and offered advice on how to stop its transmission.
“I realized that there were people dying and that the death rate could be higher as a result of a lack of access to the articles.”SHRINE
One article was published in the 1980s but was locked behind a $45 paywall and thus remained unseen by Liberian physicians and officials during the outbreak. Forty-five dollars amounts to about a half-week’s salary for a physician in Liberia.
Although there can be no direct line drawn between publishing paywalls and the number of lives lost, Shrine believes that there should be no impediment to information that could potentially help those on the frontlines of a pandemic.
The question then becomes whether the benefits of a paywall truly outweigh the possible benefits of increased access to research during critical times.