How to steal 50 million paywalled papers

5747629074_d484394fa5_b

From Flickr CC / https://flic.kr/p/9KU6T1

I’m not a criminal mastermind, so I could be wrong, but I can’t think of a way to steal more — defined by list price — per unit of effort than using sci-hub to access paywalled papers I don’t have legitimate subscription access to read.

I don’t know the scientific term for this, but there has to be some way to describe the brokenness of a system based on the ratio of effort expended to damage done. For example, there are systems where even large effort is unlikely to cause serious harm (the US nuclear weapons system), versus those where minor efforts succeed but cause acceptable levels of harm (retail shoplifting). And then there is intellectual property, where small investments can inflict billions of dollars worth of damage.

Syed Ali and I have a short piece with some links to the news on sci-hub at Contexts. Alexandra Elbakyan says it took her about three days to develop the system that now gives anyone in the world access to almost 50 million paywalled articles. Of course, a lot of people help a little, by providing her with access information from their subscribing universities, but it still seems like a very low ratio of criminal energy to face-value payoff.

Example

Now that sci-hub is in place, how hard is it for an untrained individual to steal a $40 article while risking almost nothing? As hard as it is to insert 11 characters into a paywall URL and wait a few seconds (plus your share of the one hour I expended on this post).

Here’s an example. In the journal Society, published by Springer, an article in the current issue is currently available for $39.95 to non-subscribers. But Society is a “hybrid open access” journal, which means authors or their institutions can pay to have their paper unlocked for the public (I don’t know how much it costs to unlock the article, but let’s just assume it’s a rollicking awesome deal for Springer).

So for this example I use one of the unlocked articles, so you can try this without stealing anything, if that feels more ethical to you, but it works exactly the same way for the locked ones.

The article is “Saving the World, or Saving One Life at a Time? Lessons my Career with Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders/MSF has Taught Me,” by Sophie Delaunay. This is the launch page for the article:

http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s12115-015-9965-4

From there, you can download the PDF (it would say “Buy Now” if the article weren’t unlocked) at this link:

http://link.springer.com/content/pdf/10.1007/s12115-015-9965-4.pdf

Or you can steal it for free by inserting

.sci-hub.io

into the URL, after the corporate domain thing, like this:

http://link.springer.com.sci-hub.io/content/pdf/10.1007/s12115-015-9965-4.pdf

Don’t ask me how it really works, but basically it checks if the article has been requested before — in which case it’s cached somewhere — and if it hasn’t been requested before it uses fake login information to go get it, and then it stores the copy somewhere for faster retrieval for the next person. That’s why your stolen PDF may have a little tag at the bottom that says something like “Downloaded from journal.publisher.com at Unfamous University on Recent Date.” If the article comes up instantly, you didn’t really steal it, you’re just looking at a stolen copy; if you have to watch the little thing spin first then it’s being stolen for you. With this incredibly smart design the system grows by itself, according to demand from the criminal reading public.

What’s the punishment?

I have no idea what risk Alexandra Elbakyan or her compatriots face for their work. I don’t imagine the penalty for any given user is greater than the penalty for shoplifting a $39.95 bottle of Awesome Wasteproduct. And for me sharing this, I would expect the worst thing that would happen would be a stern letter on legal letterhead. But maybe I’m naive.

Anyway, the point is, it says something about the soundness of the academic publishing edifice that doing this much damage to it is this easy.

What are the ethics?

I am aware that some reasonable people think sci-hub is very wrong, while others think the current system is very wrong. I know that many people’s current paychecks depend on this system continuing to malfunction as it does, while others never earn the higher incomes they otherwise could because they can’t get paywalled articles. I understand corporate journals add some value through their investments. And I know that the current system denies many people access to a lot of information, with social costs that are unquantifiable. And there is some inherent value to not breaking the law just in general, while there is also value to breaking bad laws symbolically. How you balance all those factors is up to you.

Some people think it’s even wrong to discuss this. What does that tell you?

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A party like it’s 2014 (marriage equality edition)

My question for Marco Rubio is, what are you going to do about this gay marriage you are still so against?

In his closing statement at last night’s debate, Marco Rubio said,

Our culture’s in trouble. Wrong is now considered right, and right is considered wrong. All the things that once held our families together are under constant assault. … If you elect me president we are going to re-embrace free enterprise, so that everyone can go as far as their talent and their work will take them. We are going to be a country that says that life begins at conception, and life is worthy of the protection of our laws. We’re gonna be a country that says that marriage is between one man and one woman.

Here it is:

This wrong-right thing is not exactly specified, but in context it clearly refers to abortion and gay marriage — so wrong, but not “considered right.”

What does it mean to say, “We’re gonna be a country that says that marriage is between one man and woman”? What does a country say? Does anyone really listen to what these people say?

Yes, they do. Because as of the morning of yesterday’s debate Rubio has a Marriage & Family Advisory Board to make sure that his words have meaning, and that right returns to right, while wrong is again returned to its proper place: hidden, shamed, and reviled.

Here’s the charge of the board:

This morning, the Marco Rubio for President campaign is excited to announce the formation of Marco Rubio’s Marriage & Family Advisory Board. Marco believes the family is the most important institution in society. He understands that in a vibrant culture of marriage and family everyone benefits, but in a culture where the importance of families is neglected all sorts of problems result. You cannot have a strong nation without strong people, and you cannot have strong people without strong values. Right and wrong. Good and bad. That is learned from your values instilled in you in the family. It is irreplaceable.

Strong statements for strong times. (In fact, you cannot have strong times without strong statements.) These are the board’s members:

  • Ryan T. Anderson, Ph.D., Senior Research Fellow, The Heritage Foundation
  • Joseph Backholm, Executive Director, Family Policy Institute of Washington
  • Ambassador Ken Blackwell, Senior Fellow, Family Research Council
  • David S. Dockery, President, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School
  • Sherif Girgis, J.D./Ph.D. candidate, Yale Law & Princeton
  • Alan Hawkins, Ph.D., Professor, Brigham Young University
  • Kay Hymowitz, William E. Simon Fellow, Manhattan Institute
  • Jonathan Keller, CEO, California Family Council
  • Caitlin La Ruffa, Executive Director, Love and Fidelity Network
  • Robert Lerman, Emeritus Professor of Economics, American University
  • Everett Piper, Ph.D., President, Oklahoma Wesleyan University\
  • Bill Wichterman, former special assistant to President George W. Bush
  • Bradford Wilcox, Senior Fellow, Institute for Family Studies & Visiting Scholar, American Enterprise Institute

I wish the Republicans would debate this a little more seriously. Ted Cruz has proposed a Constitutional amendment, Jeb Bush and John Kasich have complained about marriage equality but not argued for overturning it, Trump says he opposes marriage equality but doesn’t really care. So what’s Rubio’s plan. Either you think it can be reversed, which is dumb, or you’re just attacking gays and lesbians as “wrong,” which is mean.

On Rubio’s board, Wilcox, Lerman, Hawkins, and Hymowitz are Family Inequality regulars. Of course he doesn’t really need policy advice at this point in the campaign, so this is just about signaling — it’s Rubio showing donors the direction he’s taking, and it’s these people deciding to put their names on his campaign. (Somehow, though, I’m sure they will also still be able to describe themselves as “non-partisan,” because wrong is now right.) It’s also the first time I know of that Wilcox has publicly opposed marriage equality, which is a promising turn in his maturation as a partisan hack.

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Has your marriage lasted 50 years? Congratulations, you’re old

Just kidding: Congratulations, you’re old and have had a long marriage.

The Washington Post magazine has a feature out today called “The secret to a long-lasting marriage.” I don’t have a general comment on it, because I only made it to the third paragraph, and it’s probably worth reading.

But the third paragraph is funny:

They have beaten the odds of death and divorce: Of all current U.S. marriages, only 7 percent have reached the 50-year mark, according to the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at Bowling Green State University.

It is certainly true that making it to the 50-year mark of marriage means you have beaten the odds of death and divorce. But that 7% figure has nothing to do with it, because it includes people who got married yesterday!

Here is the breakdown of when people got married, among people married right now (in the 2014 American Community Survey, which has to be the source for that statistic):

yrmar14

So the statistic is correct: only 7% of currently married people have been married for 50 years or more. Good for them! To bad for all those other people they were born so recently.

It’s all in the denominator. Sure, 50-year marrieds are rare, but compared to what?

With the ACS we can answer a more relevant question, which is this: among living people whose most recent marriage was 50 years ago or more, what is their current marital status? This is a little more encouraging: half are still married.

mars50p

So let’s restate the original congratulatory message like this:

They have beaten the odds of death and divorce: Of all people who tied the knot 50 or more years ago, and who haven’t yet died, only 50% percent have made it this far without divorcing or becoming widowed, according to the American Community Survey.

Many happy returns.

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Marriage and gender inequality in 124 countries

Countries with higher levels of marriage have higher levels of gender inequality. This isn’t a major discovery, but I don’t remember seeing this illustrated before, so I decided to do it. Plus I’m trying to improve my Stata graphing.

I used data from this U.N. report on marriage rates from 2008, restricted to those countries that had data from 2000 or later. To show marriage rates I used the percentage of women ages 30-34 that are currently married. This is thus a combination of marriage prevalence and marriage timing, which is something like the amount of marriage in the country. I got gender inequality from the U.N. Development Programme’s Human Development Report for 2015. The gender inequality index combines the maternal mortality ratio, the adolescent birth rate, the representation of women in the national parliament, the gender gap in secondary education, and the gender gap in labor market participation.

Here is the result. I labeled countries with 49 million population or more in red; a few interesting outliers are also labeled. The line is quadratic, unweighted for population (click to enlarge).

You can see the USA sliding right down that curve toward gender nirvana (not that I’m making a simplistic causal argument).

Note that India and China together are about 36% of the world’s population. They both have nearly universal marriage by age 30-34, but women in China get married about four years later on average. That’s an important part of why China has lower gender inequality (it goes along with more educational access, higher employment levels, politics, history, etc.). China is a major outlier among universal-marriage countries, while India is right on the curve.

Any cross-national comparison has to handle this issue. China is 139-times bigger than Sweden. One way to address it is to weight the points by their relative population sizes. If you do that it actually doesn’t change the result much, except for China, which in this cases changes everything because in addition to being huge they broke the relationship between marriage and gender inequality. Here is the comparison. Now the dots are scaled for population, and the gray line is fit to all the countries except China, while the red line includes China (click to enlarge).

My conclusion is that the gray line is the basic story — more marriage, more gender inequality — with China as an important exception, but that’s up for interpretation.

I put the data and the code for making the charts in this directory. Feel free to copy and crib, etc.

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Marriage promotion snake oil tour

W. Bradford Wilcox is in Oklahoma today, lecturing on the benefits of marriage promotion for an anti-abortion activist group. His speech was previewed in an op-ed in the Oklahoman. (It’s fitting that this comes up the day after my post about promoting your research — I never said your research was good.)

Just briefly, here are two of the claims, with the QBD™ (QuickBradDebunk).

He wrote:

“Strong Families, Prosperous States,” a report I recently coauthored, found that states with more families headed by married parents enjoyed significantly higher levels of economic growth, family median income, and less child poverty, compared with states with fewer married-parent families. Indeed, if Oklahoma enjoyed its 1980-levels of married parenthood, its per capita GDP would be 2.5 percent higher, its median family income would be 5.6 percent higher, and its child poverty rate would be 8.5 percent lower.

Indeed. I wrote about that deeply ridiculous report in this post last fall. This just adds a wrinkle. Even if that research were reasonable, which it definitely isn’t, this kind of statement is completely misleading. It’s fine to illustrate a regression coefficient with a statement about the magnitude of the coefficient, as in, “for every year of history, net of other factors, the marriage rate declined X%.” But when you’re describing a trend over time it is not reasonable to say that rolling back a single variable would actually create that effect. Nothing really works that way, and any statement isolating a regression coefficient like that needs to make explicit that it is a counterfactual illustration of an effect size, not an actual statement about what “would” happen.

More extremely fraudulent, however, is this one:

The state should continue supporting the Oklahoma Marriage Initiative. The initiative is one of the bright spots on the state’s family landscape, as its programs have been shown to increase the quality and stability of family life among lower-income Sooner families. Indeed, one study found that OMI was responsible for a 3-percentage-point increase in the share of Sooner children living with two parents.

Indeed. Thorough research on this marriage promotion program puts the lie to this exaggeration. Yes, some of the local results from this program showed very small relationship improvements to program participants. These results did not include increases in marriage, which is what most people think of when a “marriage scholar” (from the headline of the piece) refers to “quality and stability of family life.” And readers can be excused for thinking he was talking about marriage if they read the next sentence, which refers to an increase in “the share of Sooner children living with two parents.”

That last claim is unsourced, but I think it might come from the study that I debunked here. They found that states with higher marriage promotion funding, in some years, had a higher proportion of children living with two parents. Wow. Except when they removed Washington, D.C. the effect was gone. I’m not kidding about this; it’s all in the post. Please correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe that is where he gets the claim that marriage promotion worked in Oklahoma. (Read all about Oklahoma’s marriage promotion program in Melanie Heath’s excellent book, One Marriage Under God.)

In any event, this certainly doesn’t reflect what actually happened in Oklahoma, which is that the proportion of families with children headed by married couples continued to fall throughout the marriage promotion period, actually declining faster than the national average. Here are the trends, using data from the American Community Survey via IPUMS.org.

wbwok-fig2

Wilcox may have some legalistic defense of this claim. But he knows that it is not true, and that it will be misunderstood and misused by his credulous audience. In fact, based on the template of this op-ed, Wilcox could literally go to every state and tell them that marriage promotion increased the rate at which children live with two parents, because every state had greater-than-zero funding. Even as marriage has declined in every state. Regression!

Such a tour would not be unprecedented in America, of course. The original snake oil salesmen took something that was actually good — the fatty oils used by Chinese immigrants — and turned it into a bogus miracle cure peddled by American hucksters to gullible consumers. This is the modern bureaucratic update to that hoax, funded with more than a billion dollars of welfare money and peddled through think tanks and academic journals.

Marriage promotion does not die, it is undead, requiring none of the material sustenance upon which mortal movements rely (such as facts or evidence of effectiveness). Lakshmi Gandhi’s piece on snake oil is fitting:

playwright Eugene O’Neill referred to snake oil in his 1956 play The Iceman Cometh, when a character suggested that a rival was “standing on a street corner in hell right now, making suckers of the damned, telling them there’s nothing like snake oil for a bad burn.”

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Basic self promotion

your work

If you don’t care enough to promote your research, how can you expect others to?

These are some basic thoughts for academics promoting their research. You don’t have to be a full-time self-promoter to improve your reach and impact, but the options are daunting and I often hear people say they don’t have time to do things like run a Twitter account or write blogs. Even a relatively small effort, if well directed, can help a lot. Don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. It’s fine to do some things pretty well even if you can’t do everything to your ideal standard.

It’s all about making your research better — better quality, better impact. You want more people to read and appreciate your work, not just because you want fame and fortune, but because that’s what the work is for. I welcome your comments and suggestions below. 

Present yourself

Make a decent personal website and keep it up to date with information about your research, including links to accessible copies of your publications (see below). It doesn’t have to be fancy (I have a vested interest in keeping standards low in that department). I’m often surprised at how man  people are sitting behind years-old websites. 

Very often people who come across your research somewhere else will want to know more about you before they share, report on, or even cite it. Your website gives your work more credibility. Has this person published other work in this area? Taught related courses? Gotten grants? These are things people look for. It’s not vain or obnoxious to present this information, it’s your job. I recommend a good quality photo (others disagree).

Make your work available

Let people read the actual research. Publishing in open-access journals is ideal, because it’s the right thing to do and more people can read it. (My recent article in Sociological Science was downloaded several hundred times within 10 days, which is much more than I would expect from a paywalled journal.)

Whether or not you do that, share your working paper or preprint versions. This is best done in your university repository (ask your library) or public disciplinary archive. (For prominent examples, check out the University of California’s has eScholarship or Harvard’s DASH; I use the working paper site of the Maryland Population Research Center, which is run by UCLA.) If you put them on your own university website, that will allow them to show up in web searches (including Google Scholar), but they won’t be properly tagged and indexed for things like citation or grant analysis, or archived — so it’s better just to put links on your website. But don’t just link to the pay-walled version, that’s the click of death for someone just browsing around. 

Don’t be intimidated by copyright. You can almost always put up a preprint without violating any agreement (ideally you wouldn’t publish anywhere that makes you take it down afterwards), and even if you have to take it down eventually you get months or years to share it first. No one will sue you or fire you — the worst outcome is being asked to take it down, which is very rare. Don’t prioritize protecting the journal’s proprietary right to promotion over serving the public (and your career) by getting the research out there, as soon as it’s ready. To see the policies of different journals regarding self-archiving, check out the simple database at SHERPA/RoMEO.

I oppose private sites like Academia.edu and ResearchGate. These are just private companies doing what your university and its library are already doing for the public. Your paper will not be discovered more if it is on one of these sites. It will show up in a Google search if you put it on your website or, better, in a public repository.

I’m not an open access purist, at least for sociology. If you got public money to develop a cure for cancer, that’s different. For us, not everything has to be open access (books, for example), but the more it is the better, especially original research. Anyway, it would be great if sociology got more into open science (for example, with the Open Science Framework). People for whom code is big already use sites like GitHub for sharing, which is beyond me; in your neck of the woods that can be great for getting your work out, too.

Share your work

In the old days we used to order paper reprints of papers we published and literally mail them to the famous and important people we hoped would read and cite them. Nowadays you can email them a PDF. Sending a short note that says, “I thought you might be interested in this paper I wrote” is normal, reasonable, and may be considered flattering. (As long as you don’t follow up with repeated emails asking if they’ve read it yet.)

Social media

I recommend at least basic social media, Twitter and Facebook. This does not require a massive time commitment — you can always ignore them. Setting up a public profile on Twitter or a page on Facebook gives people who do use them all the time a way to link to you and share your profile. If someone wants to show their friends one of my papers on Twitter, this doesn’t require any effort on my part. They tweet, “Look at this awesome new paper @familyunequal wrote!” When people click on the link they go to my profile, which tells them who I am and links to my website. I do not have to spend time on Twitter for this to work. (I chose @familyunequal because familyinequality was too long and I didn’t want to use my name because I was determined not to use Twitter for personal stuff. I think something closest to your name is ideal, but don’t not do this because you can’t think of the perfect handle.)

Of course, an active social media presence does help draw people into your work. But even low-level attention will help: posting or tweeting links to new papers, conference presentations, other writing, etc. No need to get into snarky chitchat and following hundreds of people if you don’t want to.

To see how others are using Twitter, you can visit the list I maintain, which has more than 600 sociologists. This is useful for comparing profile and feed styles.

Other writing

People who write popular books go on book tours to promote them. People who write minor articles in sociology might send out some tweets, or share them with their friends on Facebook. In between are lots of other places you can write something to help people find and learn about your work. I recommend blogging, but that can be done different ways.

As with publications themselves, there are public and private options, and I’m not a purist. (Some of my blog posts at the Atlantic, for which I used to get paid a little, were literally sponsored by Exxon, which I didn’t notice at first because I only looked at the site with my ad-blocker on.) But again public usually works better in addition to feeling better.

There are some good organizations now that help people get their work out. In my area, for example, the Council on Contemporary Families is great (I’m on their board), producing research briefs related to new publications, and helping to bring them to the attention of journalists and editors. Others work with the Scholars Strategy Network, which helps people place Op-Eds, or others. The great non-profit site The Society Pages includes lots of avenues for writing about your research. In addition, there are blogs run by sections of the American Sociological Association (like Work in Progress, from the Organizations, Occupations, and Work section) or other professional associations, and various group blogs.

And there is Contexts (of which I’m co-editor), the general interest magazine of ASA, where we would love to hear proposals for how you can bring your research out into the open (for the magazine or our blog).

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Family Inequality week in review

Some things I read, shared, or came across this week.

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