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This week’s digest takes a look at the issue of the open and free access to academic literature

open access

The Debate About Free & Open Access to Academic Literature

The concentration of academic publications over the years has resulted in what Lariviere refers to as an “oligopoly”. In other words, there is a consolidation of all academic published work and subsequently the profits for such work among less than 10 main publishing companies. There are many individuals, who wholeheartedly disagree with the current structure  and want open access for everyone to academic literature.

The reality is that a few large publishing companies such as Reed Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer and Sage to name a few, publish an overwhelming majority of all academic literature across disciplines and charge a fee to access their databases.

The current system charges a cost to access the majority of all published literature, particularly articles published in high-impact journals (a rating system of journals that defines the best as having the highest impact score). The fees are paid by individual’s purchasing on a per article basis or more common, an institutional subscription.

open access


For administrators, library budgets across academic institutions simply cannot keep pace with the rising costs of institutional subscription prices. A huge barrier to access exists or students, whose institutions do not have access through a paid subscription. Specifically, students who attend post-secondary in developing countries and smaller colleges and universities are simply left out from the beginning and have no access to a vast majority of current academic information. For graduate students, their career development depends on completing research and getting that research published. It is imperative graduate students have access to the literature just to get started in that process.

Furthermore, the argument in support of open access points out that the vast majority of publications are from research funded through public money such as government initiatives created from tax revenue thus, the information from those initiatives should be available in the pubic domain, after all, we as taxpayers funded the research. Given the cornerstone of policy guidelines and medical protocols are based on the academic research, it appears to some literally criminal that the information is kept behind gate-keeping publishing companies, who gain exorbitant profits from those paying to access ‘their’ literature.




Recently, a graduate student in Russia took on this task, broke protocol and devised a system to allow the free and open access to academic literature for everyone. Her name is Alexandra Elbakyan and she is a researcher in Kazakhstan. Her idea was to create Sci-Hub, which is a website that provides access to a staggering amount of academic research for free, albeit illegally according to some at the moment. However, according to Elbakyan and clearly a number of supporters, having free and open access to journal articles is simply the right thing.She started her quest in September of 2011 and access grew to more than 48,000,000 journal articles.

Basically, how it works is that individuals who already have access to the various databases provide their information to log-in and bypass what Elbakyan calls paywalls. A vast majority of which are often paid through an institutional subscription from their affiliated college or university or may also be paid through a professional organization. The access information is supplied anonymously to Sci-Hub and the software allows access to journal articles for free. You can read more about the details of Elbakyan’s project here.

The project remains in a legal battle brought forward by the publishing company Elsevier in New York, USA. The original website was shut down over copyright issues and citing Elsevier states that Elbakyan’s system uses illegal access to academic accounts in order to gain free access to publications. However, in very short order Elbakyan had a new site and the project continues to process hundreds of thousands of requests per day and continues to fight for what she states is the “right thing.

At SNJ Associates, we would really like to know what our readers think about this issue.


1/ Is Elbakyan’s Sci-Hub idea a good one?

2/ Do you endorse having this type of software available to all?

3/ Do you feel it is illegal?

4/ Would you yourself use it if you needed access to an article that you had to pay for?




Larivière, V., Haustein, S., & Mongeon, P. (2015). The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era. PloS one, 10(6), e0127502. Public Library of Science. Retrieved from

Livermore, T. (2014). Boycotting academic publishers is a career risk for young scientists. The Guardian. Retrieved from

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