Pirates in academia

You can find anything in the dark depths of the web — even free research papers. But does illegal access to science come at a cost?

Illustration by  Sarah Nagorcka

Illustration by Sarah Nagorcka


This is an editorial for Issue 23 of Lateral by Physical Science editor Tessa Evans, who is surprised that she hadn't heard about Sci-Hub until recently, and is somewhat in awe of the gumption of Alexandra Elbakyan.

Does everyone really deserve access to science?

The latest pirate to take the world by storm is a graduate student from Kazakhstan. Her booty? Scientific papers about nematodes, bowel movements and sediment soil.

While the rise of open access journals is slowly making science more accessible to the world, some are taking a radical, WikiLeaks-style approach: stealing the information and giving it away. Kazakh Alexandra Elbakyan founded Sci-Hub back in 2011 when she was a 22-year-old graduate neuroscience student. Sci-Hub has no paywalls, no institutional logins and the papers are free, breaking open access to knowledge that is usually tightly restricted.

Now, she’s been sued for a second time by publishing juggernaut Elsevier for copyright infringement and hacking.

In 2015, a US district court in New York ruled that Sci-Hub infringes on Elsevier’s legal rights as the copyright holder of its journal content and ordered the website desist. After the web domain was seized, Elbakyan simply changed the domain name, much like The Pirate Bay does (the servers are based in Russia, where the US legal system holds no sway), and went straight back to giving away papers. This year Elsevier tried again, with a judge in the same court recently awarding them millions in damages. Now, the American Chemical Society, whose papers and books are also distributed on Sci-Hub, has joined in and decided they’ll sue her, too. But since Elbakyan is outside the jurisdiction of the US, as long as she stays in Kazakhstan, she might not have to pay.

Many commentators think that Elsevier is just shooting itself in the foot. The more publicity they give Sci-Hub through court cases, the more people will know about the site, a classic case of the Streisand effect. Because there’s another reason Sci-Hub is popular: It’s just so easy to use.

The interface is simple: All you need is the DOI (a specialised number associated with a journal article) or title of a paper of your choice, and it will take you straight to a downloadable PDF, for free. It’s that easy.

And you have a lot to choose from. SciHub hosts almost 50 million journal articles, and if they don’t have the paper you’re after, you can request it.

I’ll admit, I was curious. So I tried it out. I can see how it takes a lot of the hassle out of the institutional logins normally required to access papers — one of the reasons many academics use it. The other day, a friend was looking for a paper she’d written about her master’s research 10 years ago that she no longer had a copy of. She could only remember the title, but there it was on SciHub. 

To understand just how much of a big deal (and big money) this is, you have to look at how journals make money, which is almost exclusively from universities.

Journals are exceptionally expensive — it can cost thousands of dollars a year for a subscription to a single academic journal. To provide their researchers with access to the research they need to do their work, most universities have yearly subscriptions to hundreds or thousands of journals, but not all of them. But access is not equal across academia. In his book Open Access (unsurprisingly, the book is available free online) Peter Suber, a philosopher specialising in the philosophy of law and open access to knowledge, notes that Harvard University subscribed to almost 100,000 journals in 2008, while the best-funded research library in India only subscribed to around 10,000 journals.

Poorer universities, particularly those in the developing world, are faced with not being able to access research relevant to their needs, preventing progress and the scientific process. Unsurprisingly, the main users of Sci-Hub are from developing countries — a fact which is only known because John Bohannon, a reporter for the journal Science, was given access to location data of Sci-Hub users over a six month period by Elbakyan herself.

But researchers in developing countries aren’t the only ones getting black market papers from Sci-Hub, with a quarter of download requests coming from countries in the OECD — many of these from IP addresses which indicate universities. This highlights one of the stranger things about Sci-Hub: many of the people who use it actually have legitimate access to journals, but are turning to Sci-Hub anyway. 

Since the 1980s, subscription prices have been steadily climbing, so university libraries must choose what journals to subscribe to, or switch to buying individual papers on request for some journals (which can be up to $50 per paper). Even Harvard can’t subscribe to them all.

This rising cost — as well as digital technologies making it possible for information to be accessed more easily than ever before — led to the Open Access movement, championed by researchers who believe that the advancement of science would benefit if scholarly publications are made publicly available. In response, many journal publishers, most notably PLoS, allow their published papers to be freely available to anyone, with authors paying a premium (often over $1000) for this option in big, high-impact journals.

There doesn’t even seem to be a justification for why journal subscriptions can charge such a premium for their services — especially since much of their work has shifted to online. Imagine if a magazine asked all their authors and reviewers to work for free, forced them to pay for the privilege, and then sold it back to them at a very high price? While there are high costs associated with printing, web management and paying the talented editors, designers and content producers, the 35-40% profit margin of publishers like Elsevier isn’t helping their case. They can only sell them for so much because their customers need them to function.

Illegal downloading isn’t going to fix the broken academic publishing system. As a result of journal piracy, authors lose download metrics which can be used as performance indicators. Institutions may think their researchers no longer need access to niche journals, cutting subscriptions and amplifying the existing problems. And, of course, it is actually stealing.

Sci-Hub isn’t the only group doing this. A university I attended discovered an international student had been taking advantage of the huge number of journals they were subscribed to, and was mining thousands of papers to send back to their home institution. I wouldn’t be surprised if others are using Sci-Hub or other institutions in this way. If access were cheaper and easier (or open), this wouldn’t happen. Maybe Sci-Hub is pushing us there.

It’s not lost on me that by writing this I’m both helping and hindering the problem, depending on which way you sit: Now more people will know about SciHub.

In a recent interview, Elbakyan told The Guardian that “science should belong to scientists and not the publishers” — an ivory tower Assange, if you will. While what she did was wrong, I can’t help thinking that she’s right.

For more illuminating ideas that shine a light on dark places, check out the rest of our night issue.