'It’s a Moral Imperative:' Archivists Made a Directory of 5,000 Coronavirus Studies to Bypass Paywalls

The potentially illegal archive is a 'moral imperative,' said one organizer.
February 3, 2020, 3:34pm
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 Security staff checks on the temperature of students entering a university, as public fear over China's Wuhan Coronavirus grows, on February 3, 2020 in Manila, Philippines. Image: Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

A group of online archivists have created an open-access directory of over 5,000 scientific studies about coronaviruses that anyone can browse and download without encountering a paywall. The directory is hosted on The-Eye, a massive online archiving project run by a Reddit user named "-Archivist."

Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared a global health emergency amid the spread of the novel coronavirus beyond China, where it originated, into roughly two dozen countries so far. The organizers of the archive see their project as a resource for scientists and non-scientists alike to study the virus.

“These articles were always written to be shared with as many people as possible,” Reddit user "shrine," an organizer of the archive, said in a call. “From every angle that you look at it, [paywalled research] is an immoral situation, and it's an ongoing tragedy.”

In 2015, Liberian public health officials co-authored a New York Times op-ed that lamented the amount of critical Ebola research that was unknown or inaccessible to scientists and health workers at the center of the 2014 epidemic. “Even today, downloading one of the papers would cost a physician here $45, about half a week’s salary,” the authors wrote.

Shrine, who is in his late 20s, said he was inspired to assemble the archive when, last week, he clicked on a new research article about the coronavirus and encountered a $39.95 paywall. He and a few friends started to brainstorm solutions around paywalls like the one he had run into. They came up with the idea of searching for coronavirus-related papers on Sci-Hub, a free scientific research repository sometimes called “the Pirate Bay of science.”

Sci-Hub's site says it provides free access to over 78 million research articles by downloading HTML and PDF pages off the web, in some cases bypassing paywalls. Because of this, major scientific publishing companies—most prominently Elsevier—have repeatedly sued Sci-Hub for copyright infringement. Similarly, by disseminating PDFs from Sci-Hub, the coronavirus archive is in questionable legal territory.

“It's illegal, but it's also a moral imperative,” shrine said.

Shrine and his collaborators searched Sci-Hub for papers from 1968 to 2020 whose titles or abstracts referenced coronaviruses, a group that contains pathogens that cause the common cold as well as MERS and SARS. They then compiled the resulting 5,200 papers, and -Archivist, who previously told Motherboard that his first name is John, uploaded the resulting archive to The-Eye.

“We are on the first step towards compiling a complete open-access Coronaviridae research catalog for the world’s scientists, journalists, and virology experts to draw from to fight the virus and save lives,” shrine wrote in a Reddit post on R/DataHoarder, a subreddit for digital archivists.

Some scientific publishers, including Elsevier, Wiley, and Springer Nature, have removed their paywalls to recent studies related to the new coronavirus in late January. Elsevier Director of Communications Chris Capot said in an email statement that the publisher will also be arranging for open access to over 2,400 research articles on multiple strains of the coronavirus through ScienceDirect, a large database of scientific and medical research that usually requires a subscription.

While shrine said that he respects the publishers’ decisions to take down paywalls to their research, he questioned the timing of the announcements, weeks into the outbreak.

“You have to wonder—what would've been possible if they had done this earlier?” he said.

-Archivist said in an email that the archive is for the thousands of people who do not have subscriptions or institutional access to scientific journals, especially if they come from less-developed regions. Shrine added that public health researchers, students, and the general public could all make use of the archive to contribute useful and productive findings to science.

For -Archivist, who has worked on archiving everything from Apple-related videos on YouTube to all of Instagram, the notion of an institution locking up data disgusts him personally, he said.

“Copyright on the health of humanity? Fuck off.”