At any given moment, 10 million academic researchers around the world are working to push the boundaries of human knowledge. You would think they have access to the best available tools to help them in their quest for knowledge. In reality the opposite is often true: the research tools at our disposal are so substandard that we are forced to use unofficial and often illegal alternatives.
Most research journeys begin with a literature review, consulting hundreds of journal articles, analysing the data within, and formulating a hypothesis to test in the lab. The reality for many researchers is that finding and accessing articles can be extremely tedious. My research suggests it takes 15 clicks on average, multiple logins into different repositories, dead links, and waiting on endless redirects.
The scale of this problem is huge: 10 million researchers around the world access 2.5bn journal articles online each year [pdf]. The time wasted trying to access them is a tax on human progress and on the development and dissemination of new scholarly knowledge.By estimating the average amount of time wasted by researchers trying to gain access to a single article, I’ve calculated that research output equivalent to around 11,500 academics is lost each year.
The high cost and inconvenience associated with accessing research papers has given rise to unauthorised alternatives, including a “dark web” of crowdsourced journal articles.
Sci-Hub is a prominent example of one of these alternative platforms. The world’s largest pirate website for scholarly literature, it has been accused of using phishing emails to trick researchers into sharing their login details for journals to obtain and illegally share content on their platform. Yet millions of researchers – even in wealthy regions like the the US and EU, where most universities have legal access – opt for this illegal service.
A recent study by Utrecht University showed that 75% of contentdownloaded from Sci-Hub by researchers at the university was already available to them, legitimately, via their institutional subscriptions. This is a headache for university librarians who spend millions on journal subscriptions that their staff and students aren’t using.
Whether you love or hate platforms like Sci-Hub, they are not sustainable models for scholarly communications. Sci-Hub is being systematically blocked, rendering it unavailable or forcing researchers to waste time circumventing restrictions. Last year, US courts granted Elsevier millions in damages from Sci-Hub for providing access to their content.
Alternative publishing models, such as open-access publishing and preprints, are growing in response to these pressures and to budgetary restraints among funders, librarians, and universities. These models have substantially improved research access – especially for those based in developing countries – but the benefits are yet to translate into more efficient research workflows. While institutions, funders and publishers are plotting out a new path for publishing, they often leave the practical needs of researchers as an afterthought.
This is why academics themselves are developing new platforms. Frustrated by the slow pace of the formal publishing process in biology, the bioRxivarchive and distribution service was created to make biological findings immediately available to the scientific community before peer review so that they could receive feedback. Unpaywall, a non-profit organisation, has created a browser plug-in that enables researchers to skip the paywall on millions of open-access journal articles. I’ve been working on Kopernio, a free tool which gives researchers legal access to open access and subscription-only journal articles via a single click, whether they are on or off campus.
The seamless user experiences we are familiar with as consumers of mainstream digital media should also be made available to researchers to advance their work, particularly since they are typically funded by taxpayers or from charitable endowments. We need to work together to ensure that academics are spending their time where it matters: wrestling with hard research questions, not with outdated or illegal tools.