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Black open access: triumph of the pirates

In gold open access, you write a paper and pay a big company lots of money to give it away for free. For some reason this isn't catching on.

In green open access, you publish your paper with a big company. They charge people to read it – but you make another version available for free. This has not caught on except in math and physics.

In diamond open access, you publish your paper with a journal that's free for you and free for the people who read it. This has also not caught on, because most "prestigious" journals – the ones you need to publish in to get a job – are run by companies who don't do stuff for free.

In black open access, people illegally download millions of papers and books from big companies and make them available to everyone for free. This is working great.

On Sci-Hub you can get at least 62 million papers for free. The publisher Elsevier sued them, and won a $15 million judgement against them, but they haven't gotten a penny and they probably never will. Their original IP address was blocked, but they're still easy to find. The lawsuit mainly brought them more publicity! Now they say 200,000 papers get downloaded each day.

On LibGen you can get at least 52 million articles and tons of books. In 2015, a New York district court ordered them to shut down, but... they're still there, and easy to find.

Now the so-called experts on open access are waking up to this fact. Here's the start of an article about this. It makes two basic points. One is that green and gold open access require lots of players to cooperate in changing their behavior, while black open access does not. Another is that bundling journals – selling them to libraries only in large groups – is slowing change. Yes, you can buy an individual paper from a journal, but it usually costs about $30. Why bother, when you can get it from SciHub or LibGen for free?


We've failed: Pirate black open access is trumping green and gold and we must change our approach

Toby Green

Key points:

• Sci-Hub has made nearly all articles freely available using a black open access model, leaving green and gold models in its dust.

• Why, after 20 years of effort, have green and gold open access not achieved more? Do we need ‘tae think again’?

• If human nature is to postpone change for as long as possible, are green and gold open access fundamentally flawed?

• Open and closed publishing models depend on bundle pricing paid by one stakeholder, the others getting a free ride. Is unbundling a fairer model?

• If publishers changed course and unbundled their product, would this open a legal, fairer route to 100% open access and see off the pirates?

At the 2017 UKSG Conference, a show of hands during Stuart Lawson's plenary on ‘Access, ethics and piracy’ showed that barely anyone present blocked access to Sci-Hub or considered it should be blocked. What I find startling is not that a room full of UKSG delegates seem to be condoning piracy and supporting black open access, but 15 years on from the Budapest Open Access Declaration, a pirate site is needed at all. After all, the pirates have long since been chased out of the music business.

It is not as if the past two decades have been spent idly. Open access advocates have busily encouraged stakeholders into funding both high-profile ‘alt-publishing’ efforts and lower-profile more-or-less open access journals (e.g. and brought forth a roar of policies and mandates that aim to oblige authors to change their publishing habits ( All this accompanied by a controversy of sessions at conferences like UKSG, which have debated the many facets of open access to the point where conference organizers must be getting desperate to find an original angle. There is even a tool to help you see where a journal sits on an open access spectrum ( Let us also recognise that every single stakeholder in the scholarly communications industry claims to be supportive of open access, yes, including publishers, commercial or not, and have set up associations to help things along (e.g. and Now, some European countries are trying a new approach: to demand of the major publishers nationwide open access contracts, such as Projekt DEAL in Germany.

Yet, while we have been bickering about the true path to open access nirvana, the pirates have crept up on us, especially in the form of Sci-Hub, which is self-reporting more than 60 million articles freely available and could have harvested nearly all scholarly literature – if true, Sci-Hub has single-handedly won the race to make all journal articles open access.

Set against this are the combined efforts of stakeholders in scholarly communications who, after two decades, have managed only to get around half the world's research articles open, with the rest still behind a paywall 3–4 years post-publication. If past performance is any guidance, around four-fifths of all new scholarly articles in 2017 will be unavailable for most people on publication via legal channels. It does not look impressive: black open access has trumped green and gold.

For books, despite initiatives like Open Access Publishing in European Networks (OAPEN), Knowledge Unlatched, and Open Book Publishers, progress has been glacial. At the time of writing, there are just over 8,000 titles listed in the Directory of Open Access Books (, which – considering that Springer alone offers nearly 280,000 titles from its online bookshop – suggests that the proportion of books published open access has yet to reach 2%.

Not for the first time, pirates are delivering where the established players and legal channels are not (e.g. To see off pirates, the music industry recognized that they had to shift from relying only on legal means to shut down the pirates and also revolutionize their business models so that it was more attractive to users than a free, pirate service. Not only did they find one with pay-to-download services, like iTunes, but they are now well on their way to complementing it with another service built around streaming.

The evidence above says that green and gold open access models are not the revolutionary business models we need because, if they were, then they would have >80% market share already, the pirates would be looking elsewhere for opportunities, and I would not be writing this piece. True, there are some sustainable open access successes like BioMed Central, PLoS, and arXiv, but their share of all articles, let alone books, remains marginal. To see off the pirates (and to nick a line from O Flower of Scotland), we need tae think again.

So, why have green and gold failed? I do not blame political leaders, the power of monopolies, or unwilling academics. Rather, I think that these models are flawed for two key reasons: change and bundle pricing.


For more, read this - it's open-access:

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