A label placed recently on the current generation of leaders by David Brooks continues to prove itself out — “pseudo-rebel.” It seems especially apt in our microcosm. Pseudo-rebels seem to find it easy to project the image of someone unbridled by tradition. Yet, this makes it difficult to fulfill the mandates of the institutional roles they occupy. The combination slowly erodes or degrades these institutions, often as part of a performance meant to make the individuals themselves feel cool or relevant. I’ve written about this before, noting how poorly we stack up to peers in other professions who do take their roles and responsibilities seriously. I also think this is why we seem to have experienced and allowed a gradual insurrection — because we won’t defend our rules of law, the norms that informally shape our responsibilities, or the mission-critical aspects of truth-seeking.
One of the laws we don’t seem capable of defending vigorously — like it or not — is copyright law.
There’s a performance art involved in throwing shade on copyright law. This manifests as reluctance to object to outright transgressive behavior — like the kind we see with Sci-Hub.
The problem of Sci-Hub is broader than just copyright, of course — not only is Sci-Hub overtly defying international laws, but is probably a front for Russian hacking, state-sanctioned or state-encouraged. So, supporting it is akin to encouraging law-breaking while also encouraging attacks from an authoritarian state with values inimical to Western democratic norms.
So . . . cool?!
This kind of pseudo-rebel performative behavior has been on display again with Sci-Hub’s recent plea for funds. Library listservs have been vacillating between the sophistry of support and skepticism, while social media has been doing its usual Dance of a Thousand Prevarications. Even Outsell slipped and promoted the Sci-Hub press release, which suggests that their domain expertise may not have permeated to the level of whoever gatekeeps their daily newsletter (it’s even tagged with the categories of “Capital Acquisition” and “Teaching & Learning Solutions,” FFS):
Update (9/15, 8:26 a.m. ET): After this post was released, Outsell issued a retraction, writing: “Please note: In yesterday’s headlines, Outsell inadvertently included an announcement about the activities of a content site that publishes material infringing copyright. We do not condone such activity, regret the error, and have removed the headline from our systems.”
On a blog, Alexandra Elbakyan, the face of Sci-Hub, describes why she’s asking for cryptocurrency to support the efforts of Sci-Hub to defy copyright laws, starting with why she couldn’t ask for PayPal or some other form of payment (typos in original):
. . . Sci-Hub has that illegal status of a shadow pirate website.
The most important feature of cryptocurrencies is that unlike PayPal, or bank accounts they cannot be frozen by a third party because your project is illegal or because Elsevier complained about it. They are safe currency. Thats why today Sci-Hub collects donations primarily in crypto.
When Sci-Hub becomes legal, which should happen because that is ridiculous, when academic library is considered to be outlaw — then it will be able to use other methods too. But perhaps by that time cryptocurrency will become default money and all other alternatives will disappear. Who knows?
Elbakyan’s dream of unregulated — and therefore resistant to being frozen — cryptocurrency may be short-lived if US regulators start to get their act together.
One wrinkle in the communication seems to be that Elbakyan let slip that legal restrictions placed on Sci-Hub did slow them down. Now that those have expired, a large bolus of documents has suddenly appeared. But this suggests that pursuing injunctions and technical remedies remain viable paths to shutting Sci-Hub down.
Sci-Hub is breaking international law. In an era during which fealty to the rule of law has slipped for many, any support for Sci-Hub — whether monetary or otherwise — should lead to a long look in the mirror. Are you also an insurrectionist of some type? Are you upholding your professional and fiduciary roles relative to the instutions (writ small and large) to which you belong?
Sci-Hub may be asking for money. But giving up a false sense of rebellion asks perhaps a little more of us.