7 Innovative solutions facilitating free access to paid scientific knowledge

7 Innovative solutions facilitating free access to paid scientific knowledge


Cases of inequality in access to knowledge

Koffi Baako is a young thesis student at the University of Dschang, in the “African Studies ” department where he is working on the epistemology of African thought. However, his research work is not progressing very quickly because the university library does not have the key works on this subject. This is not surprising! So he naturally decided to explore the universal library that is the Internet, a gateway to the digital knowledge of humanity in a few clicks. After several weeks spent searching and snooping on the web, he managed to glean some interesting articles here and there.

But as always, the best articles, those there that really interest him, are visible but inaccessible. He can only consult brief summaries but cannot access the full version for free. He would like to pay the $20 to $30 required[1] for the article but here he is, he doesn’t have an account or a bank card. Visa, MasterCard… are banking services that he knows vaguely enough about, but has never ventured to use. What’s more, he discovers that for at least a dozen key items he would need, the bill would be quite steep for Koffi if he had to pay for them all before consulting. And there is no guarantee that these items, once purchased, would actually fulfill his expectations and thirst… Unable to circumvent this economic wall, he resigns himself to making do with ” means on hand “, but this affects his productivity…

Pangop Hector on the other hand is a professor of biomedical sciences at the University of Douala. After 30 years of service and intense scientific production, he realizes that his scientific visibility score is still low, while other teachers, sometimes less consistent and relevant than him, have quickly found the face of the sun, as they have easier and more diversified access to platforms for the distribution and dissemination of knowledge.

These are only two figurative examples, among many others that researchers or students from developing countries encounter. Full access to scientific articles or journals is a major impediment to the progress of science.

Aware of these barriers, computer scientists have long tried to find alternative ways to access content. If usually it was the music, movie, software or entertainment industry that was the target of piracy, the game has changed slightly in the last decade, as scientific publishers are now targeted and here are some popular solutions to access Science for free.

  1. Sci-Hub or the fight against knowledge confiscation.

  2. Launched on September 5, 2011 by a young neuroscience researcher living in Russia, Kazakh Alexandra Elbakyan, Sci-Hub is undoubtedly Google’s equivalent of making scientific articles freely available. Since it became popular, the project’s bearers have been regularly fighting[2] against scientific publishing giants such as Elsevier[3] and ACS (American Chemical Society), who are experiencing a considerable loss of revenue and are complaining about this mode of free knowledge distribution.

    7 Innovative solutions facilitating free access to paid scientific knowledge” We are fighting against the inequality of access to knowledge in the world,” the site reads. Scientific knowledge should be accessible to everyone, regardless of income level, social status, location, etc.”

    “As of March 2017, Sci-Hub’s database contained 68.9 percent of the 81.6 million scientific articles registered with Crossref and 85.1 percent of articles published in paid access journals. Coverage varied by discipline and publisher, with Sci-Hub preferentially covering popular and paid content. For paid-access articles, Sci-Hub provides more coverage than the University of Pennsylvania, a major research university in the United States. “

    According to analyses by a team of U.S., Australian and German researchers in February 2018.  

    Today, Sci-hub provides access, free of charge, to more than 65 million articles by researchers and has more than 500,000 downloads per day, according to figures given by the site. In view of the lawsuits against it, Sci-Hub is sometimes forced to close a domain but opens another one in the process. In order to find out which domains are active, go to https://twitter.com/scihub_love to get real-time active domains.

  3. Unpaywall

  4. Unlike Sci-Hub, Unpaywall, which was also launched in 2011 by Heather Piwowar, Jason Priem, and Cristhian Parra, is not considered illegal by scientific journal publishers. In fact, nearly half of the articles searched online are available somewhere as free, open access versions.

    A paywall is therefore a database of more than 20 million articles accessible through a search engine to allow researchers to unearth open access articles from the vastness of the web. For example, when a researcher comes across an article that is protected and paid for, Unpaywall looks to see if a free – and legal – version is stored somewhere. And searching is easier thanks to the browser extension launched in April 2017.

  5. The Google Scholar extension

  6. The Google Scholar extension allows you to automatically search for the availability of a free scientific article through academic social networks like ResearchGate or Academia, where researchers upload their articles without being systematically allowed to deposit them by the publishers .

  7. Open Access Button

  8. The Open Access Button (OAB) project aims to bounce us, for free and legally, from a paid option to a free alternative. Unlike the Google Scholar Button, OAB does not strip academic social networks. If a free version of the article is available, it opens directly.

  9. Kopernio

  10. This browser extension ( Firefox or Chrome), created by researchers at Imperial College London, has a dual purpose: to recognize the user’s affiliation with a university and thus open articles in PDF format based on his or her library’s subscriptions ; to additionally open free versions of the articles when they exist.

  11. Lazy Scholar

  12. This browser extension has many features :

  • automatically searching for a free version of the article ;
  • Providing a variety of citation metrics
  • The tool is capable of making new recommendations, including scanning lists from PubMed to suggest new articles
  • arXiv

    arXiv is a free distribution service and open access archive of 2,088,732 scholarly articles in the fields of physics, mathematics, computer science, quantitative biology, quantitative finance, statistics, electrical engineering,  systems science and economics.

    The papers on this site are not peer-reviewed by arXiv.


    The Stakes of Open Access for Scientific Research for Africa.

    Most African libraries, especially sub-Saharan ones, cannot afford the exorbitant prices of commercial databases, nor are they able to provide their researchers with up-to-date documentation.

    According to the Council for the Development of Social Science Research in Africa (CODESRIA), the African continent’s interest in open access is still largely limited to the ability to access research produced abroad for free, while there are a few African initiatives, “fragmented and disorganized“.

    Few African institutions, in fact, have defined a clear policy on open access to scientific information[4].

    The directory of open access policies, ROARMAP identifies only 19 policies formulated on the African continent: 2 in North Africa (Algeria), 2 in West Africa (Ghana and Nigeria), 7 in East Africa (Kenya and Zimbabwe), and 8 in South Africa (University of Pretoria).  

    The African Journal Online (AJOL) website, which is dedicated to enhancing the value of research conducted in Africa, also lists nearly 200 journals published in open access.

    On the Global Open Access Portal (GOAP) , Unesco highlights 4 challenges to ensuring broad and free access to scientific and technical information in Africa :

    • Increase Internet penetration on the Continent, which today remains the least connected region in the world (27% access),
    • Progressively convert all subscription-based journals into open access journals,
    • Develop open archive repositories, guarantee their long-term maintenance and encourage researchers and students to deposit their publications.
    • Introduce strategies and policies in favor of open access at the government and institutional levels.

    Sharing knowledge

    As we have seen, open access increases the visibility of research, facilitates and accelerates peer review of its results, and enhances the internationalization of research, especially for developing countries.

    If knowledge is a power issue, facilitating sharing and access are even more so. Thus, there is an urgent need to widely disseminate research results produced in Africa by Africans to make Science more balanced and equitable. Projects such as Sci-Hub are thus welcome as they will allow the economic model of scientific journals to evolve in order to move towards Open Source and real knowledge sharing across the world!

    Notes and references

    [1] The ever-increasing price of accessing scientific articles has been agitating the scientific community for the past several years. In 2012, more than 15,000 researchers had signed a petition titled “The Cost of Knowledge,” denouncing the “exorbitant” prices of Elsevier, which publishes as many as 2,000 scientific journals per year.

    [2] ‘Sci-Hub, the site that hacks scientific research articles, is back’, 15 February 2016, https://www.lemonde.fr/pixels/article/2016/02/15/sci-hub-le-pirate-bay-de-la-recherche-scientifique-est-de-retour_4865611_4408996.html

    [3] Elsevier had filed a lawsuit against the site for copyright infringement and won in the U.S. courts. The original domain name, Sci-hub.org, had been removed by authorities. But the site reappeared under another address, Sci-hub.io

    [4] Soline Lau-Suchet, ‘”Open access” and open access resources on the African continent #OAweek’, Billet, Le Carreau de la BULAC (blog), accessed 29 April 2019,

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