Free Knowledge (1)

In 1998, my parents decided to buy me a (new) computer as a gift for passing the entry exam for the state university. After one or two months of waiting for the new computer to be built from scratch by a friend, I end it up with a 6×86 PC with 3½-inch floppy disk and CD reader. And suddenly I became a legend among my friends. This computer was a sort of universal passport that could give me access to worlds otherwise impossible to discover. And soon I began my journey by using its CPU at maximum.

What I knew back than is that the type of the network interface I am using is quite important for getting on the Internet. So, when my computer arrived, the next natural step was to get a good signal on my phone landline to connect to Internet. A revolutionary way to get outside my home without actually traveling outside my home.

I was familiar with Netscape and Internet Explorer, but still unprepared for the whole mess available on the Internet. In those days, websites were static and full of text, with no interaction from the user. Consequently, the Internet became the main resource for reading new stuff and doing minimal research.

Project MUSE, JSTOR and EBSCO were around, but almost nobody knew about their existence. Ingenta was new in town. And so the libraries and archives were becoming more and more accessible. But not for Eastern Europe. In this part of the world, most researcher were still sending letter to authors asking for copies of their papers or book chapters.

My case was a little more special: I was using an email service to reach the authors I was interested in. And, most of the time, they were sending me their work using a similar tool.

After some years, Internet took off and the electronic libraries became a commodity. And with the help of a colleague from West, especially from US, you could gain access to them without paying for them. Those were the years of accumulation. The fear of not having access to those resources anymore was as real as the threat itself: the technique regularly used by the owners of those resources, i.e., huge companies interested only in making money, involved IP and download tracking. Consequently, a professor or a research who had access via their university could see their account suspended or even closed.

The years of accumulation were soon over. More precisely, when those companies extended their operations in Central and Eastern Europe, Asia and many other parts of the world. So instead of having an HHD full of texts saved during long hours of downloading, you could have access to the electronic libraries themselves with your own id. Those were the years 2004-2012.

Everyone was delighted to search for texts whenever they need to, not to download everything because who knows when they will come in hand. But the expansion of the companies mentioned earlier continued and the books and the journals became more and more expansive, with restricted circulation due to their prohibited prices, and universities could no longer afford all-in packages.
Some of those institutions were so outraged that they started protesting against this practices of price gouging.

At the same time, a revolution was cooking in the guts of Internet. Some young anarchists thought that knowledge should be free. Some of them, haunted by the spirit of Robin Hood, were distributing their huge electronic repositories via Mule, DC++, torrent and other file-sharing systems. This was the spark: the spark that made the companies attack them ferociously, and the spark that made others think about this situation and do the same thing.

This is how sites like gigapedia, libgen and sci-hub took shape. From an ideology that promotes free access to knowledge.

And the years of accumulation returned.

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Now, when you study this phenomenon and you see what is being uploaded on libgen monthly (at least English, Spanish, Italian, French and German texts), it is impossible not to notice that there are at least 3 categories of people who make books available there. There are the “anarchists” — people who download books just to offer them publicly as an act of civil disobedience –, the “researchers” who share because they care, and the “promoters”, i.e., those who share their own work in order to make their ideas known.

The first category is responsible for dumping the largest portion of the libgen database. I do not know the percentage because I do not have access to the database or the data sets to make a scientific analysis. But my estimation is that those guys and those girls pour thousands and thousands of titles there.

The researchers represent the second category by the level of books posted there. When they dump texts, you can recognize them because all the titles are on the same topics or from the same field. For instance, someone who has done research on public policies concerning gender identity and sexuality will dump his/her entire library on this subject and you will find those titles closely connected in the libgen list.

The third type is quite irrelevant. The promoter share one, maximum two titles. Their interest is strictly related to their own work: they realized that their book has a limited circulation and, by making it available on libgen, they hope to brake this limitation and see their name in other publications.

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Instead of a conclusion, I have a question: if your research is based on an illegal access to electronic resources, is your research conducted in an ethical manner? And, consequently, should your work be published by a scientific journal that upholds the highest ethical standards in scientific publishing or not?

There is also a second way to ask this: if your research could not be done in an ethical manner because the publishers are practicing price gouging, is it conducted in an ethical manner? Can civil disobedience justify your free access to resources?

And the third way: imagine that you have already been published by several journals that stand in one great electronic repository and the publisher, which is common to all journals and the repository itself, never paid you anything for your work; is it morally justified to use for new research illegal resources that affect the economic interest of the publisher?

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