Why Sci-Hub’s story is so crucial to science?

why is sci-hub so important? Image credit: vk.com

On the 28th of October 2015, Judge Robert Sweet in his ruling at the New York district court declared that the website www.sci-hub.org be blocked with immediate effect and managed to stop hundreds and thousands of researchers and science enthusiasts from accessing the holy grail of today’s science, the research paper.

What should be a simple means to communicate to the world one’s research findings, has become a currency of some sort. A ticket to a researcher’s professional success, a magnet for an investigator to attract funding for his lab and the elusive piece of the puzzle that the publishing group can hold you ransom for, until you cough up some good cash ($30 or above for a single article and thousands of dollars for a bundled annual subscription)

What Judge Sweet termed as a “disservice (to) public interest”, is actually a small website that allows you access to scientific research, old and new, and for free. Sci- Hub. Org, started in 2011, as a trusted place to access research data for free without any bias. It simply did not matter to Sci-Hub who its users were and where they came from, if you had a scientific interest in a topic, then Sci-Hub would help you dwell into further, for free!

Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of Sci-Hub Image credit: kz.linkedin.com
Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of Sci-Hub

After losing its original domain to the court ruling, Sci- Hub has moved to another domain and continues to do its good work tirelessly.  Its founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, told Simon Oxenham at Big Think that

“we are not going to stop our activities, and plan to expand our database.” 

The website that was originally launched in Russian and looked primitive for most of its lifetime has now blossomed after the court ruling and is available for users in English as well.

Sci-Hub, in 2014 Image credit: www.waybackmachine.org

But their opponents in court, Elsevier are unlikely to let go of this issue so easily. A company with global presence and approximately 2.5 billion pounds in revenue has filed a complaint that activities of Sci-Hub have caused it irreparable harm and have demanded monetary relief in the region of $750 - $150,000 for each pirated research paper that Sci-Hub have accessed. Since its inception in 2011 and their aggressive work in the past year, Sci-Hub have accessed close to 48 million research papers from a variety of publishers (not only Elsevier). So, if the court rules in favour of Elsevier, other publishers are likely to harp on the opportunity and claim damages from a site that is doing the job publishers should be doing in first place.

The chances that the court will rule in favour of Elsevier are definitely higher, because the court will follow the copyright law of the United States and find Sci-Hub guilty of piracy. But this is not the case of somebody copying a song or poem and calling it their own. By no means is Sci-Hub trying to claim that it has published these papers. It is merely acting as a place where you can access papers bypassing paywalls.

There are two questions that need to be asked here.
  • Is Sci-Hub really a pirate?
  • Are Elsevier the copyright owners?
Unfortunately, the answers to both these questions are the same. Technically, yes. In reality, no.

Sci Hub is technically a pirate because they are accessing material that they are not authorised to. But they are doing a great job by giving people, especially students access to material that they really need, for free.

Elsevier (and other publishers), become copyright owners by force. Unless, a researcher signs a form and transfers ownership of the publication to the publishing house, they simply won’t publish it. So, legally they are copyright owners but they have absolutely no contribution to the publication, right up to the moment that it is put together, made sense of and is ready to go to the public. There are many reports ( read here, or here or here )  of how contributors of research papers are actually asked to pay up to see their own work in paper format or simply do not have the final copy of their own publication. This is similar to asking Justin Bieber to pay, if he wishes to listen to Baby. But researchers can’t do much, because the copyright has been transferred.  

Alexandra even points out on that unlike the music / movie industry, where companies like iTunes and Netflix pay royalties to the artist / production house,  publication houses like Elsevier and others do nothing of this sort. Instead under the Open Access Policy, researchers end up paying the publishing house an average of $2000 as costs associated with the publication. So, although companies like Elsevier make money from publications, the flow of money is only unidirectional.  

Open Access Publishing charges: Image credit: BMC
A comparison of Open Access Publishing charges as published by Bio Med Central. 

Personally, I do not think that Sci-Hub’s achievements so far, is going to change the flow of money, but may force them to make publications available for cheaper. Read Cube, a proprietary reference management software, launched in 2011, allows users to “rent” a publication for 24-48 hours for a small fee but hefty restrictions on downloading and printing. Nevertheless, this is a mid way between being hit by a paywall or shelling $30 for catching a glimpse of a publication that could be useful. By making it all available for free, Sci-Hub is doing scientists and the world, a huge favour and it is simply unfair to punish them for this.

This is not the first time that research publications have been downloaded and shared freely. Hundreds and thousands of copies of research publications (copyright of their publishers) are circulated via email, online forums, and social media sites for researchers such as Researchgate and Academia.edu, which publishers like Elsevier do havean issue with.  Back in 2011, Aaron Swartz, downloaded a bulk of publications from the publisher JSTOR, using his Harvard University account and intended to make it available freely. Since the data was not released, JSTOR did not press charges. In this case, however, Elsevier, is unlikely to be forgiving.

Aaron Swartz. Image credit: mashable.com
Aaron Swartz. The champion of free information for all. 

But whether it is online forums, Swartz or Sci-Hub, the main reason behind it remains the same. Access to research papers is blocked off by organizations, who wish to mint money and will throw a few crumbs at us (Open Access Policy options, Cheaper subscription for developing countries etc.) to get away with their crimes.

Where Sci-Hub has managed to attack is the place, where it hurts these publishers most. The survival of Sci-Hub in this legal battle is important because, it will shape the way how publishers function in the future. A blow to Elsevier in this legal battle will make publishers rethink about their main purpose and force them to put the reader first instead of their financial statements. To do this, the court may have to look into copyright laws and ownership of content in a more modern context.  

But let’s face it, it is unlikely, that Sci-Hub will emerge victorious and that is why, we cannot sit back and look anymore. To begin with, researchers need to stop giving in to the fatal attraction of publishing in highly reputed journals (owned by Elsevier and the like) and stop the flow of articles into the system. Use of free repositories like Arxiv, will ensure that results are not only published but also freely accessible (Win-Win).

If that is too much to ask, then researchers who need access to papers need to create an ecosystem where applications like Sci-Hub can emerge, evolve and take on the big wigs on your behalf. If it happened with Napster and Kazaa, then it can happen with Sci-Hub as well.

Alternatively, Universities should simply take up the task of handling publications themselves. All the events leading up to a publication, occur in the university. With sufficient infrastructure for peer review, Universities could simply publish research findings for each other, eliminating the third party publishers altogether. In a digital world, distribution of this content, should cost minimal and yet be accessible to all.

To conclude, I do not look at Sci-Hub as the solution to the problem of paid access. It simply cannot be. However, it is an agent of change not only for paid access but for many other issues affecting research today.  Let’s use Sci-Hub to address these issues. When the problems go away, so will Sci-Hub. I hope Elsevier is listening.

Below is the Tweet from Sci-Hub on its usage on 17th Feb, 2016

Do you think that Sci-Hub should not be doing this? Or do you think they are doing the right thing?

Let us know what you think about this in the comments section below.  

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  1. Thats a really neat article put up.. Unfortunately publication is a business and the system is such that journal gets to decide what science is to be pushed. Really appreciate Science Hub's objective of free science.

  2. Hi there Varun,

    Thanks for sharing your views on this post.

    What I did intend to bring out of the post was how we are aware about these journals towing researchers the way they want, just because, they have this perceived "impact" in the world.

    Lay men usually do not really read journals, so it's just a small circle of researchers who want to accesses each others papers and end up paying these exorbitant fees. We really need to put an end to this. And Sci-Hub has the potential to do that. So, we need to support it as well.

    I know, a lot of people will use Sci-Hub till it lasts and then go back to the forums, as they always have. But, we need to support them further and see that free access becomes a reality, rather than accepting Open Access as one.

  3. There are two most likely outcomes of Sci-Hub's challenge, neither of which you mention or will like to think about. First is what happened to Napster, which was bought out by publishing giant Bertelsmann and turned into a tool of big publishing. (Also, remember that Mendeley was bought out by Elsevier in a similar move of cooptation.) Second is the likelihood that the move toward Gold OA will speed up, thus depriving Sci-Hub of its reason for existing. But Gold OA will take as much money out of the system as the current system does, only in a different way. Users will gain, but authors and their funders will lose. At that point you can decide whether Sci-Hub overall was a good thing or not. Elbakyan may walk away a millionaire, as the founder of Napster did, Will you then be singing her praises?

    1. Dear Sanford,

      Thank you for reading my post and leaving your comment.

      In response, I would like to state two things.

      1. I am not a fan of Elbakyan but just of the work that she has been doing. What Sci-Hub is managing to do is provide access to articles, which many journals are blocking for their monetary gain. I can understand that's how capitalism works but $35 for an article is just too much. Bundling of journals does not save money for universities and that is an accepted fact. So, even if Sci-Hub is bought for a billion dollars and silenced for a while, I state in my post that we need many more Sci-Hub's to address the core issues of publishing.

      2. If Sci-Hub promotes Gold OA, that's good. But I am no fan of paying fees for publishing. So, I would rather see green OA flourish than Gold. Once again, I would like to point out to my post, where I also ask institutions to start their own journals and publish work there instead of heading to Science/ Nature/ Cell. If Harvard Medical School accepts work for publication, I am sure others would not mind sending them their manuscripts.

      Wouldn't you agree?


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