The Dark Side of Open Access

(June 1st, 2016) Publishers want to shut it down; scientists love it. The Sci-Hub repository of research articles provides a valuable service to the research community. Will it ever be able to come out of hiding?





On 28 April the Facebook page of Sci-Hub announced that its website has been shut down - again. After Sci-Hub.org was forced to go offline in November 2015, the subsequent domain Sci-Hub.io has now been blocked, too. Although probably causing some inconvenience, this is nothing that could stop the world’s largest repository of research articles: it can now be accessed through Sci-Hub.bz and Sci-Hub.cc.

This is good news for its users who can currently still download more than 51 million academic publications. Many of these papers are normally only available for subscribers of the respective scientific journal, such as universities and other research institutions. Everybody else can get access to single articles by paying around 30 USD, on average.

Due to this so called paywall, many scientists outside the first world (and also inside) face difficulties in obtaining publications required for their research, simply because their universities cannot afford subscriptions to all relevant magazines. Neither do the scientists themselves. According to a survey done by John Bohannon, a contributing correspondent for Science, more than 50 % of those downloading papers from Sci-Hub claim to have no other access to the respective publication. This is also underlined by the huge number of downloads in developing countries like China (4.4 million), India (3.4 million) and Iran (2.6 million), counting for more than a third of all requests during a six month time period.

The survey analysed around 28 million download requests on Sci-Hub and almost 11,000 questionnaires between September 2015 and February 2016. Bohannon closely collaborated with Alexandra Elbakyan, the polarising founder of Sci-Hub, who provided all the necessary raw data. These data are also publicly accessible online.

Elbakyan started the repository in 2011 when she herself and fellow students had no access to research articles at their university in Astana, Kazakhstan. The 22 year old neuroscience student and skilled computer programmer then decided “to enable researchers to access all scientific information everywhere in the world”, which she did very successfully: Sci-Hub is today the largest repository in the world. Albeit a pirate one.

The publications are retrieved by Sci-Hub in different ways: First, a similar repository, LibGen - the Library Genesis Project, is checked for the requested article. If it is not available there, Sci-Hub uses passwords provided by its users to bypass the paywall. There is also speculation that Sci-Hub works with phished passwords and mocks IP addresses of university computers to download research articles.

How exactly all documents are obtained is not disclosed by Elbakyan. Be it as it may, according to the publishers, who have a lot to lose, it is done illegally. This is why Elsevier, one of the biggest academic publishers and the one that is affected the most by the pirate database, filed a lawsuit (Elsevier v. Sci-Hub, Case#15-cv-4282) against Elbakyan in New York. They succeeded in shutting down the website Sci-Hub.org in October 2015, due to violation of the US copyright law. However, it didn’t take long until the new domain Sci-Hub.io was launched, reconnecting to the huge repository. In April 2016, this website was suspended as well but it was soon replaced by two alternative domains Sci-Hub.bz and Sci-Hub.cc. As the servers holding the database are located in Russia, they are, this time, not in reach of the US legal system.

Elsevier and other publishers fear that the pirate repository will lead to a significant loss of their revenue. In contrast, according to Elbakyan and the Open Access movement, these takings are not justified at all, since the research behind those papers is mainly funded by taxes and the articles are provided as well as reviewed by scientists, for free. The authors even transfer the copyright to the publishers and consequently do not receive any money at all. In addition, they will even have to pay for accessing their own academic articles. Elbakyan refers to Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights to argue against this approach: Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.

According to Bohannon’s survey, the Kazakh scientist is backed by most of her peers: Almost 88% of responders said they think it is not wrong to download pirated papers. A little less than a quarter of the responding Sci-Hub users even stated that they use the database deliberately, since they “object to the profits publishers make off academics”. Furthermore, about 62 % of the participants in the survey are confident that Sci-Hub will completely change the academic publishing industry as we know it.

Whether this will come true and whether Elbakyan will one day “remove all barriers in the way of science” (according to Sci-Hub’s slogan) remains to be seen. Around 200,000 download requests each day prove that Sci-Hub is a huge success. It’s very likely, though, that the cat-and-mouse game between the pirate repository and the publishers will go on. But, right now, it seems almost impossible to suppress Sci-Hub completely. Every suspended domain will certainly be replaced by another one soon afterwards. Furthermore, the world’s largest database of research articles is continuously accessible through its direct IP address 31.184.194.81.

If the worst comes to the worst, there is another website available in the Tor network, the darknet. Yet, Elbakyan hopes that it won’t come that far, since then she would have to promote her database more vigorously and teach interested users how to work with Tor.

Stefanie Haas

Picture: Sci-Hub




Last Changes: 07.21.2016



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