Last week, academic publisher Elsevier announced that it would be donating 45 free ScienceDirect accounts to “top Wikipedia editors,” granting them access to thousands of paywalled scientific journals. And people are outraged.
The seemingly benign move has sparked a bitter fight among academics and open access advocates, many of whom think that partnering with the likes of Elsevier not only goes against the spirit of Wikipedia, it could transform Wiki science articles into a front page for paywalled material.
A bit of background: Elsevier is one of the largest academic publishing houses in the world. Through its online portal ScienceDirect, folks affiliated with universities enjoy free access to 2,500 peer-reviewed academic journals and over 20,000 books. If you lack a library card, the vast majority of these resources are off limits — unless you’re willing to pay out the arse. (Elsevier has also gone out of its way in recent months to make extra double sure you’re paying, by taking legal action against sites like Libgen and SciHub, which upload pdfs of paywalled articles for free).
If you don’t have a library card, most articles on ScienceDirect look something like this
Granting some of the most prolific Wikipedia editors access to a massive trove of scientific knowledge seems like it could be a good thing for the quality of science pages on Wikipedia. But critics worry that more science pages could start becoming populated with links to restricted content. Others see it as an outright insult to the Wiki community’s core mission.
Peter Murray-Rust, Reader Emeritus in Molecular Informatics at the University Of Cambridge and a campaigner for open access, told Ars Technica that the free Elsevier accounts are “crumbs from a rich man’s table.” The arrangement “encourages preisthood,” he said. “Only the best editors can have this. It’s patronising, ineffectual.” Meanwhile, Michael Eisen, one of the founders of the open access movement, took to Twitter to express his frustration, saying that “@Wikipedia is providing free advertising for Elsevier and getting nothing in return”. In another tweet, Eisen writes “it SHOULD be difficult for @wikipedia editors to use #paywalled sources as, in long run, it will encourage openness.”
Of course, Wikipedia has long cited paywalled articles, and it isn’t clear that granting a small number of editors access to Elsevier is going to dramatically change the content of the site. In a blog post titled “Writing an open-access encyclopedia in a closed-access world” Wikipedia Library’s Jake Orlowitz and Alex Stinson write:
Collaboration with publishers is a compromise: editors summarize paywalled content for our readers, sharing information on Wikipedia that may otherwise never be represented. Citations to these resources do create greater visibility for those publishers, but Wikipedia editors are in no way required to cite them and are encouraged to use open-access sources as well.
So who’s in the right here? At the end of the day, that depends on whether the new partnership stands to improve Wikipedia more, or harm open access more.
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