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Sci-Hub Downloads Boost Article Citations -- And Help Academic Publishers

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Techdirt readers know that Sci-Hub is a site offering free online access to a large proportion of all the scientific research papers that have been published -- at the time of writing, it claims to hold 82,605,245 of them. It's an incredible resource, used by millions around the world. Those include students whose institutions can't afford the often pricey journal subscriptions, but also many academics in well-funded universities, who do have institutional access to the papers. The latter group often prefer Sci-Hub because it provides what traditional academic publishers don't: rapid, frictionless access to the world's knowledge. Given that Sci-Hub does the job far better than most publishers, it's no wonder that the copyright industry wants to shut down the service, for example by getting related domains blocked, or encouraging the FBI to investigate Sci-Hub's founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, for alleged links to Russian intelligence.These legal battles are likely to continue for some time -- the copyright industry rarely gives up, even when its actions are ineffective or counterproductive. Academics don't care: ultimately what they want is for people to read -- and, crucially, to cite -- their work. So irrespective of the legal situation, an interesting question is: what effect do Sci-Hub downloads have on article citations? That's precisely what a new preprint, published on arXiv, seeks to answer. Here's the abstract:

Citations are often used as a metric of the impact of scientific publications. Here, we examine how the number of downloads from Sci-hub as well as various characteristics of publications and their authors predicts future citations. Using data from 12 leading journals in economics, consumer research, neuroscience, and multidisciplinary research, we found that articles downloaded from Sci-hub were cited 1.72 times more than papers not downloaded from Sci-hub and that the number of downloads from Sci-hub was a robust predictor of future citations.
The paper explains which journals were selected, and the various analytical approaches that were applied in order to obtain this result. In all, the researchers compared 4,646 articles that were downloaded from Sci-Hub to 4,015 from the same titles that were not downloaded. Assuming that those are representative, and that the statistical calculations are correct, the end result is important. It suggests that articles that are downloaded from Sci-Hub are nearly twice as likely to be cited as those that aren't -- a big boost that will doubtless be of great interest to academics, whose careers are greatly affected by how widely they are cited. It seems to confirm that Sci-Hub does indeed help spread knowledge, not just in terms of the free downloads it offers, but also by virtue of leading to more citations for downloaded papers, and thus a wider audience for them.The new paper notes a rather paradoxical implication of the result. Alongside Sci-Hub, which is happy to operate outside copyright law, there are alternatives like open access journals, and preprints, which are fully within it. However, as a result of Sci-Hub's ability to boost citations:
[it] may help preserve the current publishing system because the lack of access to publications, which preprints and open access journals are trying to solve, may no longer be felt so strongly to find required increasing support.
In other words, according to this latest analysis, it turns out that the copyright industry is attacking a site whose success might be seen as a reason for not changing the current academic publishing system.Follow me @glynmoody on Twitter, Diaspora, or Mastodon.

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posted at: 12:00am on 08-Jul-2020
path: /Policy | permalink | edit (requires password)

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Court Shoots Down AT&T, Comcast Attempt To Crush Maine Privacy Law

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Over at our Tech Policy Greenhouse, former FCC official and consumer advocate Gigi Sohn just got done discussing a landmark privacy case in Maine that hasn't been getting enough attention. The short version: back in 2017, the GOP killed some pretty modest FCC broadband privacy rules at the telecom lobby's behest. Despite a lot of whining from telecom giants, those rules weren't particularly onerous -- simply requiring that ISPs be transparent about what data they're collecting and who they're selling access to, while requiring that users opt in to the sharing of more sensitive financial data.Much like net neutrality, federal lobbying by telecom giants had an unintended impact: namely once the feds showed they were too corrupt and captured to protect consumers, states began passing their own laws (some good, some bad) in order to fill the consumer protection void. On both the privacy and net neutrality fronts, giant ISPs like AT&T and Comcast cried repeatedly about how this created a "discordant and fractured framework of state protections," hoping you'd ignore this was a problem the industry itself created by relentlessly attacking even the most modest federal guidelines.Last year, Maine passed one such privacy bill modeled after the discarded FCC rules. Again the focus was largely on requiring that ISPs be transparent about what data is collected and who is buying access to it, while requiring that users opt in to the share and sale of access to more sensitive data. It also banned ISPs from charging you more money just to opt out of snoopvertising, something AT&T has already experimented with. The law was not, as telecom giants and their dollar per holler allies have claimed, particularly onerous.Comcast and AT&T sued anyway in a bid to have the law thrown out before a broader trial. In short, ISP lawyers tried to argue that giving consumers control over their own data violates ISPs' First Amendment right to market goods and services. They also claimed that by passing a privacy law that specifically targeted telecom providers, the law is based on their status as a "speaker" and should be subject to "strict scrutiny" under the First Amendment, which requires a law to be "narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest." As Sohn noted, while the case didn't get a lot of attention, the precedent of a telecom industry win here would be terrible for future efforts to pass any kind of intelligent, industry-specific tailored privacy protections whatsoever:

"Should it accept [these arguments], it would set the stage for overturning any and all sector-specific privacy laws as unconstitutional "speaker-based" violations of the First Amendment. If that were the case, then federal and state laws regulating the privacy practices of, among others, hospitals, financial institutions, pharmacies, credit reporting agencies, and libraries would all fall. Maine alone has nearly a dozen sector-specific laws. Now multiply that by 51.
Things didn't quite work out as Comcast and AT&T had hoped. This week, a Maine court shot down AT&T and Comcast's attempt to have Maine's law trashed, ruling (pdf) in favor of Maine Attorney General Aaron Frey, who had argued that Maine's law "regulates a space Congress explicitly left open, and any conflict is a figment of Plaintiffs' imaginative pleading." In the ruling, Judge Lance Walker noted that Maine's privacy law can't conflict with federal guidelines, because the industry and government worked hand in hard to eliminate said guidelines:
"Congress's nullification of the ISP Privacy Order, therefore, creates no overarching federal policy, and enacts no scheme with which the Maine Privacy Statute can conflict."
In its net neutrality repeal (which gutted FCC oversight over ISPs), the FCC tried to include a provision banning states from protecting consumers. But courts so far haven't looked kindly upon that effort, noting that federal regulators can't abdicate their consumer protection authority, then tell states what to do. Walker again supported that position here. Walker also didn't seem to think much of the telecom industry's claim that the law violated their First Amendment rights:
"Plaintiffs' Motion simply fails to clarify how an ill-defined opt-in and opt-out regime would inhibit any protected First Amendment activity; for example, how it might chill them from preparing particular marketing materials for sale to customers. And, they have not begun to bear their burden to show the statute would be unconstitutional in "all of its applications," as they must for a facial challenge."
The case will now proceed to a full trial. But it's worth noting this is just one of several fronts where the telecom industry is lobbying to kill federal consumer protections, then arguing that states are prohibited from doing anything on their own. The industry wants to have its cake and eat it too; it's pushing for a world in which nobody anywhere would be able to hold natural, widely despised monopolies accountable for pretty much anything. Their arguments surrounding free speech are not made in good faith; they're a flimsy attempt to use the First Amendment to effectively eliminate any and all oversight of a sector with a thirty-year history of anti-competitive and often fraudulent behavior.So far, as we also saw when the net neutrality repeal tried to ban states from protecting consumers, this effort is not going particularly well. But as the courts are increasingly gutted and staffed with dutiful partisan bobbleheads, there's no guarantee that trend persists.

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posted at: 12:00am on 08-Jul-2020
path: /Policy | permalink | edit (requires password)

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