In many parts of the developing world, students face barriers to access academic materials. Libraries are often inadequate, and schools and universities are often unable to pay dues for expensive, specialized databases. For these students, the Internet is a vital tool and resource to access materials that are otherwise unavailable to them. Yet despite the opportunities enabled by the Internet, there are still major risks to accessing and sharing academic resources online.
A current situation in Colombia exemplifies this problem: a graduate student is facing four to eight years in prison for sharing an academic article on the Internet. He wasn’t making a personal profit from sharing the article—he simply intended for other scientists like him to be able to access and cite this scientific research.
Diego Gomez, 26, is a Master’s student who has been researching biodiversity and working on the conservation of reptiles and amphibians for several years in the South American region. Throughout his young career, the biggest obstacle he faced was in accessing academic resources that existed on global research databases. As a student at a small university in Armenia, the availability of research papers was so limited that he often had to save money to make trips to Bogotá to access biological collections, articles, and databases only available to him at natural history museums and libraries at the capital city.
Over time, he increasingly came to depend on the Internet. It enabled him to read relevant research, share documents, and communicate with others in his field. Despite the online resources that were available, there were still major barriers that prevented him from accessing the plethora of research that existed. So when he and others came across papers that were crucial to their work, they often shared it online for other researchers to access. Gomez says:
The important thing is to make a correct citation, attributing researchers’ work by indicating their name and year of publication and, of course, not claiming the work of another researcher, but to recognize it and value it. Therefore, what we usually do is to reference the findings and make them available to those who need them.
One day a couple of years ago, he came across a paper that was especially useful to his field work. He then later shared the research online on the site, Scribd. The author of the paper then filed a lawsuit over the “violation of [his] economic and related rights.” Under the allegations of this lawsuit, Gomez could be sent to prison for up to eight years and face crippling monetary fines.