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A Torrent Site Wants to Be the New Academic Library

As the UK makes more journals freely available to library users, a couple of US researchers have a more modern approach to sharing data.

Victoria Turk

Victoria Turk

Image: Flickr/SLU Madrid Campus

After arguments over whether scientific research should be open to all rather than stuck behind paywalls, a new initiative in the UK is granting online access to journals in public libraries. The “Access to Research” scheme involves more than 8,000 journals, whose articles will now be free to read when accessed from a library computer. 

It’s a great step towards the democratisation of scientific research, but at the same time, its impact is limited by the geographic restriction. It seems a shame that, in a world of online publishing, access has to be demarcated by brick-and-mortar walls.

Meanwhile, a couple of US academics have proposed their own way of sharing research among themselves: they’re getting in on the torrenting game. Torrent Freak reported on a new site called Academic Torrents, which was set up Joseph Cohen and Henry Lo from the University of Massachusetts, and aims to make it easier for researchers to share their own work.

They boast on the site that they’re currently making 1.67 terabytes of research data available. However, this isn’t an effort to become a Pirate Bay for scientific papers, and copyright-protected work won't be available. They warn in bold letters—twice—that “All files must be licensed to legally reshared,” and users are instructed to enter the license when they upload materials (though how, or if, this will be policed isn’t immediately clear).

What it is intended for is as a solution to sharing otherwise prohibitively large research files, like datasets. As they write: “Sharing data is hard. Emails have size limits, and setting up servers is too much work. We've designed a distributed system for sharing enormous datasets - for researchers, by researchers. The result is a scalable, secure, and fault-tolerant repository for data, with blazing fast download speeds.”

In a video explaining the system, the researchers explain there’s no limit on the size of datasets in the system, so anyone can access cool stuff like NASA’s map of Mars (you don’t need to be an academic to use the service).

It’s also an opportunity for open access journals, which are invited to use the service to make their publishing easier. “By facilitating file transfers, the journal can focus on it's core mission of providing world class research,” the creators explain. They add that, “We hope, beyond datasets, this system will become the future of libraries storing digital papers as they would store books.” 

It’s a valiant effort, but its ultimate success will depend largely on uptake. A crowdsourced system like this only works if researchers actually upload the papers and datasets people want to see. And unlike the Access to Research initiative, it won’t of course help where copyright restrictions and paywalls are in place. You might just have to dust off your library card in that case.