In 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a neuroscientist in Kazakhstan, launched Sci-Hub, a website that circumvents journal paywalls, providing free access to virtually all of the scientific literature.
Publishers claim the service provided is illegal, and Elsevier Science, the World's largest science publisher, who normally charges thirty dollars or more for access to a single article from one of its thousands of scholarly journals, is taking legal action to shut SCI-HUB down, while seeking from SCI-Hub's creator tens of hundreds, if not billions, of dollars in compensation.
Alexandra Elbakyan argues, however, that Elsevier's business model is itself illegal, a claim she bases on Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states:
everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits
If the publishers of paid-access journals are unable to shut SCI-HUB down, they appear to have no option but to switch to an author-pay—free-distribution business model, which was how science publishing worked before the commercial publishers elbowed their way to a dominant position in the business — a position formerly occupied by the learned societies. Then, society journals were distributed at minimal cost to society members, and publication costs were largely covered by page charges imposed on authors, typically between $40 and $100 per page, equivalent, today, to several thousand dollars per article (normally paid out of research grants, not the authors' own pockets).
The commercial publishers were able to take over much of the science publishing business from the learned societies, first, by offering free publication to authors, and second by inducing the leading lights in many academic fields to serve as journal editors in exchange for various perks and privileges. Once a significant share of science papers had been captured in this way by the commercially published journals, universities and research institutions had little choice but to pay the often exorbitant subscription rates the commercial publishers demanded.
So long as SCI-HUB or similar services exist, however, nobody has to pay journal subscriptions in order to access the scientific literature. The result, if the situation is long sustained, will be that most commercial journals will fold unless they resort to an author-pay—free-access model. However, the author-pay model works much better for a non-profit publisher such as a learned society because, well, they are non-profit, so no profit need be built into the charge levied on authors. Moreover, learned societies, by bundling their journal with society membership fees, can achieve a huge circulations compared with that of most commercial journals, thereby permitting a low break-even charge per subscription.
Paradoxically, the commercial journals that will be hardest hit are those with the highest impact, since, having the largest circulation, they generate the greatest revenue per article published, which in turn, means that the charges that authors might conceivably be induced to pay will fall much further short of current subscription revenue than in the case of lower impact and smaller circulation publications. The result would be the demise of most commercial science journals and the revival in status of the society journals.
The return to not-for-profit science publishing will restore editorial excellence rather than profit, as the prime objective of science publishers, which will be of huge benefit to the science community. Once again, editors will be willing to truly edit, knowing that in so doing, they are not working to raise the publisher's dividend, but to assist a colleague in effectively presenting their findings, a more congenial task to those in academia.