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Scholarly paper pirating spikes in Japan, but critics slam journals' 'double-take' fees

A screenshot of the Sci-Hub website.

TOKYO -- Illicit free downloads of academic papers are skyrocketing in Japan, reaching some 7.2 million in 2022, a Mainichi Shimbun investigation has found. And while the surge casts doubt on the ethics of the scholars involved, the trend is also believed to be fueled by the relentless increase in academic journal subscription fees.

    The site providing download access to paywalled journal articles is "Sci-Hub," established in 2011 by researchers in Kazakhstan. The site can bypass those paywalls using access credentials provided by people at universities that have subscriptions to the journals. And as of June this year, Sci-Hub was giving free and open download access to over 88 million articles. The site's activities do infringe on the journals' copyrights, and some publishers have filed claims for damages overseas.

    According to a Mainichi investigation, China had the largest number of downloads with some 467.41 million in 2022, followed by the United States, Russia, Brazil, and India. Japan's roughly 7.2 million downloads ranked 14th. According to research by a University of the Ryukyus team and other scholars, in 2017 there were about 1.27 million illicit downloads in Japan, or just one-fifth of the number in 2022.

    Observers believe the soaring cost of subscriber access to research papers is likely behind the spike. According to the Japanese education ministry and other organizations, subscription fees paid by Japan's national, public, and private universities in academic 2021 totaled some 32.9 billion yen (about $235.9 million) for online journals alone, more than five times the figure for academic 2004. And this is at the same time as the Japanese government has been cutting university operating expense subsidies.

    All this means that researchers in Japan who can't access journals because of funding and other problems are increasingly backing Sci-Hub. Masamitsu Kuriyama, a former professor of library and information science at Tokyo Metropolitan University, who has analyzed Sci-Hub data, said that while illicitly downloading journal articles is "unforgivable, it cannot be attributed to Sci-Hub or its users alone. And behind all this are structural problems in the system for distributing academic knowledge."

    Researchers' problems do not end at subscription fee hikes. In recent years, a new burden has been introduced: publication fees, levied by journal publishers on paper authors to make their research "open access," or keeping the authors' work outside the paywall to facilitate broad access.

    And these fees can be extremely hefty, ranging from more than 100,000 yen to hundreds of thousands of yen (hundreds to thousands of dollars). Renowned British scientific journal Nature charges around 1.4 million yen (approx. $10,000) to make an article open access. According to the Japan Alliance of University Library Consortia for E-Resources (JUSTICE), Japanese researchers laid out an estimated 5.7 billion yen (around $40.86 million) in these fees in 2020, or about 5.6 times more than they did in 2012.

    The journal publishing model of taking subscription fees from universities and making researchers pay publication fees has been criticized as a "double-take." The publishers, however, claim that they need the revenue to handle the sharp increase in the number of presented papers, which hit around 1.9 million in natural sciences alone in 2020, an almost fivefold increase from 1981, when the statistic began being tracked.

    "Without making a profit, we can't develop new technologies and improve the paper submission system to respond to the shift to openness," one publisher executive told the Mainichi.

    Meanwhile, Japanese national university budgets remain tight. Converted into education corporations in academic 2004, they have since seen their government funding shrink. Journal subscription fees are now funded by expenses distributed to each university in proportion to the amount of government scientific research grants won by its scholars. But increasing journal prices made all the more expensive by the recent depreciation of the yen are exerting serious pressure on these funds.

    "We've managed to hold onto our subscriptions for now, but there is nothing we can do because the budget is so small," one university library worker told the Mainichi.

    Current researchers are also eager to voice their frustrations. Ibaraki University zoology professor Atsushi Toyoda told the Mainichi, "I have no choice but to buy the journals I really want to read out of my own pocket." Meanwhile, the average per-article open access publication fee of 300,000-400,000 yen (about $2,150-$2,870) paid to publishers is "almost equivalent to an entire year of the research budget I get from the university. It's to the point where I can't do research without getting external funding," Toyoda said.

    Under these circumstances, attempts are being made to reduce the burden on researchers.

    In Japan, four universities including Tohoku University signed a "conversion contract" with major academic publishing houses in 2022. Under this system, the subscription and publication fees that had hitherto been paid separately by the universities and their researchers are shouldered by the schools, to enable a certain number of papers to be published in open access format. However, the system has yet to catch on more broadly.

    At a meeting of Group of Seven science and technology ministers held in Sendai in May, the Japanese government announced its support for the immediate conversion of publicly funded papers and data to open access. In Europe and the U.S., this issue is being addressed at the national level, and Amane Koizumi, a specially appointed professor at the National Institute of Natural Sciences who is familiar with the academic journals issue, urged that "Japan also negotiate collectively as a country."

    (Japanese original by Shimpei Torii, Lifestyle, Science and Environment News Department)

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