Silencing Gutenberg

This article is written in conjunction with Operation Med School. Operation Med School (OMS) is one of Parallel’s partners and is a wonderful opportunity for high school students to gain more knowledge about biomedical and general sciences.  OMS is a unique event in that it is one of the only workshops in Calgary that is specifically geared towards providing high school students with outstanding knowledge about the medical field.  Doctors, medical students, and researchers will all be available to give speeches and presentations about their daily lives and work.

THE HUMAN GENE POOL will always have brilliance, innovation and intellect. For much of human history, from the times of Aristotle and Plato, the value of intellect remained stranded with the elites of society. Society was also stranded, without advancement or development; with disconnected tangents of inquiry spawning, but scarcely building on one another. Knowledge had no viable means of transmission, and many were stuck in the darkness of the past, unaware and unappreciative of some of the greatest thinkers of their time.

In 1440, Johannes Gutenberg, a young blacksmith, developed the world’s first printing press: a technology that revolutionized the way knowledge was recorded and viewed. With books now widely available to the populus, literacy rates dramatically increased, and  innovation and empirical inquiry became commonplace. From the availability of detailed scientific investigations to political commentaries, the establishment of the printing press empowered the marginalized, and united the many. Although Gutenberg is popularly regarded as the inventor of the printing press, he served humanity with much more: a bridge to an unfamiliar world of enlightenment, equality, and revolution.


With modern technology, electronic databases are easily shared, and knowledge has found the most streamlined avenue of transmission. In the face of a new system that is founded upon the sharing of knowledge and accessibility, the faculties of repression and knowledge scarcity have shifted to an unlikely target. Millions of songs, videos and posts are uploaded daily onto the public domain for a relatively small price and viewed for an even smaller one. The knowledge sharing that once dominated literature and publication, has now re-entered the private domain as private institutions hold excessive control over their rights. The scholarly research that fuelled the advancement of society across much of the 20th century has become nothing more than a highly regulated and mediated avenue of learning that is becoming increasingly reserved for the most influential institutions and the elites of the scientific field.

As the scientific world has undoubtedly learned from the technological revolution of the late 1900’s, the realm of science is anything but restricted for a stratum of society. The faces of modern technology have come from the unlikeliest of places and continue to spawn from the rich, poor, coloured, and white alike. With research institutions and initiatives selling their publications to journal publication giants like Elsevier, the once liberated field of science has once again been captured by one grasp. No longer  a symbol of the monarchy or the church, it is held by the symbols of capitalism by publishers with market caps exceeding the billion mark. Not only are these organizations unwilling to engage and invest in public outreach, but they actively seek to destroy its connection with science. What’s even more alarming is the hostility that Robin Hoods of Science are treated with, not only by these organizations profiteering off the outcome of institutional research, but by the very government that supposedly protects the public right to knowledge, the check and balance for privatization.

SciHub is at the forefront of the fight against the increasingly privatized field of scholarly science. Hosted in Russia and run by neurotechnologist-turned-software developer Alexandra Elbakyan, it is an internationally acclaimed source for access to expensive scientific articles for free. As a public domain initiative, the website and its associated database, LibGen (Library Genesis), runs without payment, but encourages donations. The website receives requests from users for specific scientific articles, and, using publicly donated passwords for specific journal repositories, is able to retrieve the documents, ultimately mechanizing the password-sharing that already occurs online. In addition to providing the document to the individuals requesting them, SciHub is able to store the articles in its own database, allowing it to achieve faster retrieval the next time a user requests the same article.

The premise of SciHub may seem controversial as it essentially steals from the profitability of companies like Elsevier in the liberal marketplace. However, when analyzing the research itself, it is crucial to recognize the distribution of incentive across the various levels of scholarly science. Scientific incentives should lie with the researchers themselves,  who fuel the advancement of their field with little incentive of corporate success or consumer appeal. The profit distribution largely remains within the publication companies themselves, depriving researchers of royalties, with strict guidelines and terms that corner researchers into forfeiting their rights over their own research in order to get recognition and publicity incentives. In modern science, the real incentives seldom go to the minds of innovation, but the ink of the oversight.

Opponents of SciHub also stress the importance of allowing money to remain in the realm that it begins with. Making the cool assumption that publication companies or researchers themselves invest in research is inaccurate and dangerous. The very institutions that invest in the research struggle to pay for the resulting publications, including premium institutions like MIT and Harvard, that have both publicly expressed concern on the rapidly increasing prices of scientific research access. As the pool of holistic research institutions and groups is chiselled down to the few that are willing to shell out the cash for the research that they funded themselves, the irony of what is apparently called science reaches new heights.

Perhaps the most interesting opposition to institutions like SciHub are the governments themselves. Who funds governments? The taxpayers. Who is the largest investor in scientific research in Canada and the US? The federal governments. Where do the largest profits from scientific research lie? The publishers. Who do publishers bar from accessing scientific research? The taxpayers. The very individuals who fund the system propelling scientific research are left in the dark when it comes to access, and the government does little to prevent it. In fact, the government plays a much more active role in the plot than what seems rational.

In the case of Aaron Schwartz, one of the technology crusaders of and other successful tech-ventures, the government of the United States targeted the very person that looked to fill the gaps in a flawed system. Accessing MIT files, Aaron Schwartz downloaded several scientific articles without encryption, an attempt at covering his steps, and basic computing manipulation. Intending on releasing the information in the public domain, without planning on personal profit, just as SciHub does, Schwartz was arrested by MIT police, before he had a chance for altruism. The labels were slapped on. Cyber Criminal. Enemy of Capitalism. Hated Hacker. So were the charges: 35 years in jail, 1 million dollars in fines,  and monitored Release. Two years later, Mr. Schwartz committed suicide at the age of 26.

While organizations like Elsevier siphon away knowledge and money from the public domain, behind the closed doors of private enterprise, our government accuses the white knights of conspiracy. The government is not the arbitrator for freedom of knowledge when it sees fit, but the unconditional guardian, and its place there cannot be forgotten. When our eyes were opened to the potential of free enterprise by Napster or the establishment of free platforms of education like Operation Med School, it was a sign of imminent restructuring of a faulty system.

Ultimately, Parallel and OMS hope to spread scientific knowledge in order to ensure that the death of Aaron Schwartz will not be forgotten, the strike on SciHub will be remembered, and the silencing of Gutenberg will not be tolerated.   


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Tickets are available at  OMS will occur on March 20, 2016 in the ICT building at the University of Calgary.  Writers from Parallel will be attending in order to conduct exclusive interviews with OMS executives and healthcare professionals.  Together with OMS, we will provide general science themed articles (such as this one), as well as in conjunction with STILL LIFE to analyze the factors affecting the prevalence of women in scientific professions.


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