Sections of India’s science community have asked the Centre to oppose a petition by three international academic publishers in Delhi High Court seeking a ban on two alleged pirate websites that offer free access to academic research.
Over 2,000 teachers, scholars and students from institutions across India in a statement released on Friday urged the court and the Centre to allow researchers in India continued access to Sci-Hub and LibGen.
Three academic publishers — American Chemical Society, Elsevier and Wiley — have sought a ban on the two websites that provide free access to research papers and books.
Sci-Hub, created in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a web developer based in Kazakhstan, calls itself “the first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers” to “remove all barriers in the way of science”.
The website library has over 85 million papers. The other site LibGen (Library Genesis) also offers free access to scientific papers, comics and magazines.
Elsevier had in 2015 filed a similar legal challenge against both Sci-Hub and LibGen in the US, and a New York court had in 2017 awarded $15 million in damages for copyright infringement by Sci-Hub and LibGen.
The lawyers who filed the petition for the publishers in Delhi High Court and the lawyers representing the two websites were not immediately available for comments.
But Indian scientists have now expressed their support for Sci-Hub and LibGen.
“We support their initiative which, we contend, does not violate any norm of ethics or intellectual property rights as the research papers are intellectual products of the authors and institutions,” a scientists’ group called the Breakthrough Science Society said in a statement.
The Society has said academic publishers have adopted business models under which they treat the knowledge created through academic research funded by taxpayers’ money “as their private property”. More than 2,000 faculty members, students and scholars have signed the statement.
While researchers and reviewers of papers are not paid, the academic publishers “make windfall profits of billions of dollars by selling subscriptions to libraries worldwide at exorbitantly inflated rates which most institutional libraries in India and even developed countries cannot afford”, the Society said.
Padmanabhan Balaram, a senior biochemist and former director of the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, also wrote on Friday to India’s science and technology ministry to intervene to ensure that this case does not block access of Indian researchers to content from the websites.
“The websites are serving public good in the way perhaps Robin Hood was serving public good,” Balaram told The Telegraph on Friday. “We have to understand the circumstances and conditions under which Robin Hood did what he did.”
“Even the most well-endowed academic institutions in India are unable to afford the subscription costs of all the journals they would like to have,” Balaram said.
Balaram, in his letter to the secretaries of India’s departments of science and technology, biotechnology, and scientific and industrial research, said the government should not allow the websites to be blocked without an investigation “into monopolistic and unfair pricing in the science publishing industry”.
India, Balaram wrote, spends hundreds of crores of rupees through multiple library consortiums and open access charges paid by Indian scientists using public funds, referring to “open access” journals that ask scientists to pay for papers they want to publish.
He said scientific publishers had profited from both scientists and libraries, “exploiting cleverly the author pays and reader pays models”. He has asked the government departments to find ways to get publishers to “negotiate on their unreasonable business model that results in a colossal waste of research funds”.