For the Wealth of Nations?: Scholarly Piracy, the Public Good, and the (De)Commodification of Information


The main underlying driving force behind traditional economics is greed.

In a capitalist free market economy, only those who are willing to pay the price for products or services receive access to them. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith suggests that it is this selfishness and competition for scarce resources that drives the economy, as “every individual … intends only his own gain, and he is …led by an invisible hand to promote an end that was no part of his intention” (273). According to Smith’s invisible hand metaphor, each person acts in their own self-interest, which generates a demand for goods and services. This demand compels organizations to deliver these products in the most efficient manner possible and for the most profit. This system is self-sufficient and self-regulating and is at its most efficient when the government does not intervene (Birdsall 5).

Information is a commodity because it has value; it is a marketable item that is produced to satisfy an individual’s wants or needs. This definition of information is not new, but it became much more apparent with the commercial exploitation if the Internet. As Francis Heylighen notes, before the turn of the century, and “the advent of commercial interests on the Internet, the reigning culture among its users was one of freedom, cooperation and sharing, not of competition and exclusion” (2). Early Internet users were mostly researchers, who used the Net to exchange information and to get feedback on their work. In this context, the Internet became a public tool to disseminate information as widely as possible and at no additional cost to the user. Various businesses, however, soon turned to the Internet to make a profit through advertising, sales, and intellectual property rights (Heylighen 3). As a result, information became rivalrous or a private good, an item that, if used by one person, is unavailable to others (“Private Good.”).  In a free market economy, information is understood to be restricted in access, costly, and often only partially available- or, in other words, as a commodity that warrants competition.

Today, information is still a commodity- but it is the scholarly publishing industry that profits from the commodification of knowledge at the expense of consumers (libraries and their users). In order to operate, this free market economy relies on two tenets: excludability and rivalry.  

  1. Excludability

Excludability is the ability of sellers to force consumers into buyers, in which the product goes to the highest bidder. A good or a service is defined as excludable if it is possible to prevent consumers who have not paid for the product from having access to it (DeLong and Froomkin).

Libraries must pay a subscription fee to receive access to most journals. Consumers (institutions or individuals) who do not pay -or who cannot pay due to soaring journal price costs- do not receive access to this information.

2. Rivalry

Rivalry refers to the competition for resources, in which goods can be construed as either rival or non-rival (DeLong and Froomkin)

Knowledge is non-rival as it can not be depleted with repeated use. In other words, just because one person has access to an article, this does not stop another from using it. However,  access to information becomes more and more restricted as it becomes more costly. This scarcity  leads to competition- not between publishers (currently an ogliopoly with the Big 5) but between consumers for these resources. Each library acts in their own self-interest to purchase resources for their users, which generates a demand for these goods and services.

However, knowledge is and ought to be a public good. In other words, it should be non-excludable and non-rivalrous. There are many benefits when information is made publicly available and is not blocked by paywalls. Some of these benefits include: greater visibility and research impact, increased opportunity for collaboration, accelerated discovery, greater transparency with research funds and grants, increased creativity and innovation, and improved education for all.


Now, in the age of the World Wide Web, it is possible for research findings to be disseminated free of charge to anyone who wishes to read them. Nowhere is this more apparent than with the rampant increase in scholarly piracy, an illegal practice in which information published in articles and books is made freely available to all and without any apparent financial benefit to contributors.

Lets take a look at a few examples that have been in the spotlight recently:

Sci-Hub: Over the past year, some 47 million research articles have been made freely available through a site called Sci-Hub and thousands of papers are downloaded on a daily basis. The site uses login credentials that are submitted by those sympathetic to the cause or by accessing articles from  LibGen– another Russian site where users can search for pirated full-text science articles.

r/Scholar: A community on Reddit (subreddit) where redditors (users) post the title and details of the article they are looking for and another redditor obtains the article for them. Currently has over 25,000 subscribers and roughly  5 -10 article requests by redditors a day

#icanhazdPDF: A hashtag used on Twitter to request access to academic journal articles which are hidden behind paywalls using the article’s title,  DOI, or other identifiers

But what happens when private goods are made public?  

Well, we go back to the original intended use of the Internet. Back to a community of researchers who use the Internet to exchange information and ideas and to get feedback on their work. Back to when the Internet was not used as a tool for the commercial gain of greedy publishers who profit at the expense of consumers. Although the end may not justify the means, such incentives turn information into a public good that can be shared by all.

But how does a market thrive when greed is not used to elicit production?

Public goods present a problem for present day economists. In traditional economic practice, price serves to elicit production. As Murray and Trosow adequately summarize, information economies are based on the principle that “information- and knowledge-based goods and services will be underproduced without a guarantee of sufficient market-based financial incentives to creators and owners” (n.p.). A market cannot sustain itself when people use and enjoy information without having to pay for it. Also, all other things being equal, people will tend to concentrate their efforts on producing for profit. Thus, the rules of supply and demand that govern a free-market economy are inoperable when it comes to public goods. Economists refer to this imbalance between supply and demand as total market failure. Total market failure occurs with public goods due to inefficiency in the allocation of goods and services. In other words, the quantity of a product demanded by consumers does not equate to the quantity supplied by suppliers (Murray and Trosow). Scholarly piracy thus shakes the foundations of the standard case for the market, as this new market is not one that is driven by selfishness and greed.

But how then do such markets operate? To go back to Smith’s invisible hand theory and the idea that intellectual property is necessary to stimulate innovation- how does a market survive when price is not used to elicit production? And not only survive, but flourish? The answer, I would posit, is found in the concept of altruism.

Altruism is the belief in or practice of disinterested and selfless concern for the well-being of others. More simply put, altruism is acting with an unselfish regard for others, even if it is detrimental to the individual. By extension, altruistic economics is a system that recognizes that people are not completely inherently selfish (Kolm and Ythier 85). Instead of a free market economy, this system is more like a gift economy. It functions based on a mode of exchange, in which resources are not sold to the highest bidder for money, but given freely and without the implication of future rewards (85-86). This altruistic model is fitting to describe the pirating of thousands of scholarly documents, in which users voluntarily upload these resources for the good of all and with no apparent benefit to them- financial or otherwise.

Yet, in an altruistic economy, it is not detrimental for users to share information with others on the dark web. In fact, according to Heylighen, this sharing of information actually benefits contributors. He argues that, by sharing with a community of users, the sharer will experience those “good feelings” that come with the knowledge that they have helped to fulfill the information needs of society (9). These “feel good feelings” result from contributing to a community that appreciates the user’s contribution, even without any formal recognition for a job well done. The example that Heylighen gives to back up his claim is Wikipedia. Wikipedia is a web based application that keeps a very detailed account of all the changes made by its users and yet, it is impossible to see how much an individual author has contributed to the system. Despite its anonymous authorship, Wikipedia is one of the fastest growing open-source software programs on the World Wide Web, with more contributors than any other similar platform (10).

This example illustrates the benefits of altruistic sharing and, perhaps, offers at least a partial explanation of the reasons why scholars contribute papers to r/Scholar, Twitter, and LibGen. The success of Reddit, for example, can be attributed to its karma system. When posts are submitted to a subreddit, such as r/Scholar, redditors can vote for (upvote) or against them (downvote).  r/Scholar also has a front page that shows newer submissions that have been rated highly. Redditors can also post comments about the submission and respond to other comments; these comments themselves can also be upvoted and downvoted. The more points or upvotes a user has, the more “karma” they have, which reflects how much good the user has done for the r/Scholar community. In other words, redditors contribute papers to r/Scholar because it makes them feel good about themselves and because they are hoping that their good deeds will be recognized by other members of the community.


Source: Reddit FAQ 

People also work on such projects, however, with the hope that they will receive some help in return. Although this idea appears to contradict an altruistic economic model, in which unselfish authors offer their expertise for the public good, reciprocity is actually a key component of altruism and a gift giving economy (Kolm and Ythier 85). The success of such initiatives therefore can be attributed, at least partially, to reciprocal altruism. Users share these scholarly materials with the hope that others will help them out in return and provide them with resources that they need in the future.

If greed is what drives the information economy today, then scholarly piracy complicates such self-serving ends. The main principles of excludability and rivalry, that have traditionally been used to explain the success of capitalist markets, fail when applied to this new economy of information. Furthermore, the implementation and relative success of these ventures, in which information is made publicly available for the good of all and in which users do not profit financially from their work, suggests that greed is not the only way to elicit production. Alternative models do exist and they can be used to describe the success of these systems and public goods. One such model is altruistic economics, a system that is not based on selfishness, but on reciprocity and shared understanding. Altruism offers a good explanation for why researchers continue to contribute  to these projects, without the expectation of financial gain and with the very real possibility of litigation.

However, a guerrilla open access approach is not the answer. While the scholarly publishing system is undoubtedly broken, there  are other sustainable (and legal) economic alternatives in this information economy where scholars can make their work freely accessible online. For more information on how to make your work Open Access click here.


Benefits for Authors.” Nature Publishing Group. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

Birdsall, William F. “A Political Economy of Librarianship?” Hermes: Revue Critique 6 (2000): 1-14. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

DeLong, J. Bradford, and A. Michael Froomkin. “Speculative Microeconomics for Tomorrow’s Economy.” First Monday 5.2 (2000). Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Garner, Carolyn Caffrey, and Gabriel J. Caffrey. “Bypassing Interlibrary Loan via Twitter: An Exploration of #icanhazpdf Requests.” ACRL 2015.

Heylighen, Francis. “Why is Open Access Development so Successful?: Stigmergic Organization and the Economics of Information.” Open Source Jahrbuch 2007. Eds. B. Lutterbeck, M. Baerwolff, and R.A. Gehring. Lehmanns Media, 2007. Web. 4 Apr. 2016.

Kolm, Serge-Christophe, and Jean Mercier Ythier. Handbook of Economics of Giving, Altruism  and Reciprocity: Foundations. Vol 1. Amsterdam: Elsevier, 2006. Print.

Larivière, Vincent, Stefanie Haustein, and Philippe Mongeon. “The Oligopoly of Academic Publishers in the Digital Era.” Ed. Wolfgang Glanzel. PLoS ONE 10.6 (2015): e0127502. PMC. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

Maus, Jeff, and Angela Henshilwood. “Reference on Reddit: Can We Help?” Presentation at the OLA SuperConference 2015. Metro Toronto Convention Centre. Toronto, ON. 30 Jan. 2015.

Murray, Laura J., and Samuel E. Trosow. “Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide”. College Quarterly 17.4 (2013): n.p. Web. 5 Apr. 2016.

Open Access.” CARL-ABRC. Web. 6 Apr. 2016.

Oswald, Ed. “Setting Knowledge Free: Sci-Hub is the Pirate Bay for Research Papers.”Digital Trends. 17 Feb. 2016. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

Private Good.” WebFinance Inc, 2014. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.

Smith, Adam. An Inquiry Into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations. Vol 1-2. London: J. Decker, 1801. Print.

Willinsky, John. “Sci-Hub: Research Piracy and the Public Good.” Times Higher Education. 14 Mar. 2016. Web. 3 Apr. 2016.



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