Journal Piracy Is Not [Just] Stealing From the Rich

This post is from Karen Gray Edwards, ASA Director of Publications and Membership

In February, ASA became aware that ASA-owned journal content (and that of virtually all scholarly journals published by JSTOR, SAGE, Elsevier and other major journal publishers) had been illegally downloaded and made freely available through “Sci-Hub.” Elsevier initially led the legal fight against the theft by Sci-Hub (and LibGen) and won an injunction in October 2015 that shut down the U.S.-based domain used by Sci-Hub. The domains were then moved and reopened in Russia.Scihub_raven[1]

ASA, other scholarly societies, and our publishing partners have been dismayed by some of the published comments about Sci-Hub that present its theft as a kind of “Robin Hood” fairy tale by characterizing the “victims” as greedy publishers feasting on the profits of expensive individual article downloads by needy researchers.

For the vast number of nonprofit scholarly societies involved in this theft, the reality is starkly different and threatens the well-being of ASA and our sister associations as well as the peer assessment of scholarship in sociology and other academic disciplines.

ASA partners with SAGE in order to effectively publish our 10 ASA-wide and two specialty section journals online, something we cannot do though self-publishing. (One other section journal is published through a partnership with Wiley.) Nevertheless, as do most scholarly societies, ASA owns our journals and controls publishing policy, including pricing and dissemination. ASA does not restrict our journal authors from circulating their accepted work even when we require a transfer of copyright. ASA authors may post their final, accepted manuscripts on their own websites or in institutional repositories if they choose to do so. We allow use of our journal content without permission and without fee for teaching and research purposes. We provide open access to our scholarly magazine, Contexts for 30 days after publication, and we permanently post on our website free versions of featured articles from every issue of each ASA journal as it is published. We also work with our publishers to provide free access to nearly 5,000 libraries in developing countries. Finally, ASA provides free online access to all 10 ASA-wide journals to our thousands of members (one-third of whom are students and 12 percent are international members) as a benefit of membership (with dues as low as $50).

ASA sets a low paywall for most of the final copyedited, typeset, and electronically published “articles of record.” When we use a paywall, it is to cover the costs of our journals program and related services. We need to pay for the editorial offices and staffs that manage the double-blind peer review process, which takes a significant amount of time given the very high volume of submitted manuscripts that they must process prior to and during the review process. This is costly even though we use software and an online system (for which we also must pay) to facilitate the process. We use graduate student staff wherever possible which helps host academic departments cover their stipends. We pay a small executive office staff that is responsible for production and editorial office support. We must pay for independent copyediting; preparing manuscripts for digital delivery and print publication; tagging for metadata; placing articles in a searchable, cross-referenced electronic  database of journal articles; copyright and DOI registration; ensuring that the published articles are in the widest possible abstracting and indexing services; and finally we pay to ensure the preservation of the content in a permanent digital archival database (such as CLOCKSS) so the scholarship is never, ever lost to future users. There are many other costs nonprofit scholarly societies incur to publish peer-review scholarship for which we have no other revenue source than that generated by the paywall.

Because ASA and most scholarly societies own their journals and the publisher (profit or nonprofit) does not, we can have final control over the price of our journals and can limit increases to libraries and other subscribers. Because of the responsibility ASA feels to the scholarly community and libraries of all types, we have kept the subscription prices very low (even as we pay a portion of the revenue for the services of our publishing partners). Keeping the subscription cost to libraries as low as possible while still maintaining the revenue stream needed for the cost of publishing journals was, in fact, the single most important criterion ASA considered when we moved away from self-publishing to accommodate the demands of electronic publication and international circulation.

The theft of our journal content doesn’t just harm those publishers many view as “big and greedy” (some who may indeed be big and greedy). It harms scholarly societies such as ASA whose volunteer editors work very hard to provide the highest quality journal content in specialized areas of scholarship and whose volunteer leaders do everything possible to provide scholars access to these journals at a low cost or free.

ASA is a nonprofit, so whatever revenue we receive from our journals, beyond what it costs us to do the editorial and publications work, goes directly into providing professional and educational services to our members and other scholars in our discipline (whether they are members or not). Among them are the authors we publish and their students. The revenue allows ASA to provide sociologists in the field competitive research grants, pre-doctoral scholarships, specialized career development, and new digital teaching resources among many other services. It is what allows us to work effectively with other social science associations to sustain and, hopefully, grow the flow of federal research dollars to the social sciences through NSF, NIH, and many others and to defend against elimination and cuts to federal support (e.g., statistical systems and ongoing surveys) so scholars can conduct research and then publish outstanding scholarship.

The theft of ASA journal content also puts at risk our ability to expand and enhance our journals program on behalf of the discipline. In the last 15 years, ASA has used its resources to launch a new magazine, Contexts, to make cutting-edge social research accessible to general readers; started three specialty section journals in fields previously underrepresented by other ASA journals (community and urban sociology, sociology of mental health, and race and ethnicity); begun sponsoring an open-access section journal in world-systems research; significantly expanded the size of existing ASA journals including our flagship, American Sociological Review; and launched a new discipline-wide open-access journal, Socius: Sociological Research for a Dynamic World. It takes years before a new journal can cover the cost of producing it. Our association’s ability to continue to expand and enhance our journals is put at risk by article piracy—as is ASA’s ability to maintain and support existing journals, as well as for other services for sociologists and our discipline.

We encourage an open dialogue on this important issue; please comment below or feel free to contact me via e-mail at I look forward to hearing from you.