As legend has it, centuries ago a man named Robin Hood terrorized the forests around Nottingham, in England. As much as officials hated him, people loved him, because he had a habit of taking from the rich and giving to the poor. England’s rich were making more money than they could ever spend, while most people were barely making a living. A similar thing is going on now in the world of science: an innovative portal called Sci-Hub is offering free scientific papers to the world. Big journals are making massive (arguably unjustified) profits while in many parts of the world, students and researchers are starving for science. In this sense, Sci-Hub is like Robin Hood.

Who’s downloading pirate papers? Everyone.

Sci-Hub is really easy to use, even easier than looking through the journals themselves. All you need is the title or DOI of the article.

As I was working on my undergrad project at a not-very-famous university in Eastern Europe, I wanted to do a good job. I was going for a pretty ‘out there’ project and relevant papers were few in between. But even so… I couldn’t access them. Like many other universities today, mine didn’t have access to that many scientific journals — because that’s really expensive.

Of course, you can pay for the papers individually, with prices ranging around $30. For a decent undergrad thesis, you can probably get away with 10-20 papers, so let’s say $500. For me, at that point, that was more than double my monthly living expenses. In other words, it’s realistically off the table. If you’re doing a Ph.D., however, you likely need about 10 papers a month — in many cases, much more. If your university doesn’t have access to the journals you want… you’re pretty much screwed. So if you’re not lucky enough to be born in the right country or study at the right university, you don’t get to access science?

Well, there are some alternatives. You’re best off contacting the researcher, who are often times willing to help. But even in the best-case scenario, that’s really time-consuming, and you’ll likely end up wasting a week before you can get the papers — that’s if you find the person’s contact and if they reply, and if the journal in which the paper was published allows sharing. It’s more than just an annoyance, it’s incredibly time-consuming.

The Sci Hub effect

Alexandra Elbakyan founded Sci-Hub to thwart journal paywalls. The researcher behind this project says that everyone should have access to knowledge, regardless of their income.

“Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them,”Elbakyan told Torrent Freak last year. “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal.”

She sat down with John Bohannon from Science to share some of her website’s data. As Bohannon puts it, despite being a denounced criminal by powerful corporations and scholarly societies, she was surprisingly open. The stats paint a complex picture, but they all indicate the same thing: a lot of people really need Sci-Hub. Just take the article’s first comment:

“If you live in a third world country and study science (i’m a biology student) you have no way to access papers relevant to your field of research. So in my country (Venezuela) where biodiversity is vast and a great number of field research can be done we have no way to consult papers that are useful in the analysis of our data.”

Sci-Hub’s stats.

The same situation, with small variations, is repeated time and time again — and this is reflected in the website’s statistics. There are over 28 million requests, from all fields of science. The entire website hosts over 50 million papers.

Sci-Hub has over 3 million unique IP address requests every month, so that’s at least 3 million students and researchers using it. But the real number is actually much higher, as many students and professors share a similar, university IP. Furthermore, mirror websites (usually national) appear at a surprising level, increasing the sharing of papers even more. Sci-Hub has become the go-to website for scientists and students in the developing world.

You might think this is only a problem in poorer, underdeveloped parts of the world. That alone could arguably justify Sci-Hub’s existence, but it’s not just them. Harvard and Cornell, two of the biggest and most active universities in the world have recently declared that paying for journals is simply too expensive. Researchers are also taking a stand, with 15,000 scientists vowing to boycott publisher Elsevier. Governments are discussing ways to make all science open-access and China is set on having everything free. Some journals are starting to open up, but it’s only a minority. If you look at a map of Sci-Hub users, it’s a lot like a global map of productivity, with some parts being reversed. Everyone is using it. Even people who have access to journals prefer using it just for the easier interface. As Science quotes Gil Forsyth, a GWU engineering Ph.D. student:

“If I do a search on Google Scholar and there’s no immediate PDF link, I have to click through to ‘Check Access through GWU’ and then it’s hit or miss,” he says. “If I put [the paper’s title or DOI] into Sci-Hub, it will just work.”

Sci-Hub is staying true to its Robin Hood image — it’s giving science to the people, outraging the big journal:

“I’m all for universal access, but not theft!” tweeted Elsevier’s director of universal access, Alicia Wise, on 14 March during a heated public debate over Sci-Hub.

It’s not like journals are necessarily the baddies here. There’s no arguing that scientific journals have done much to help the world. Having a standardized, peer-reviewed way of disseminating scientific information has accelerated science dramatically… but along the way, something changed. Journals became less and less interested in disseminating information, and more and more interested in profit.

To put things into perspective, these aren’t some small indie companies. Elsevier is a company that reports profits of over $1.3 billion every year. Two-thirds of their Wikipedia entry page is criticism brought by others, which says a lot about the state of science publishing. They charge Universities up to $1 million a year, which a Stanford report found Elsevier’s subscription to be “disproportionately expensive compared to their educational and research value” and advised librarians to drop their journals and “not to contribute articles or editorial or review efforts to publishers and journals that engage in exploitive or exorbitant pricing.” Other major publishers have a similar approach and exorbitant prices — which are often prohibitive. Because researchers need to publish in journals (which by the way, doesn’t get them a single penny in return), if you don’t access the journals, you basically don’t access the science.

Good or bad?

Robin Hood’s statue near Nottingham Castle. Image in Wiki Commons.

Right now, Alexandra Elbakyan risks financial ruin, extradition, and imprisonment because of a lawsuit launched by Elsevier last year. Yet she’s done so much to advance science it almost seems unreal. Without her work, millions of students and scientists wouldn’t have been able to finish their projects, or it would have taken them immensely more time and effort.

In the first paragraph, I called Sci-Hub “innovative”. I spent a lot of time thinking about that particular word, and I stand by it. I think this small website founded by a young, frustrated, and creative scientist can make a big difference for people worldwide. Who knows what cure may be developed thanks to a researcher who used Sci-Hub to access papers? Who knows what brilliant mind had access, at the right time, to quality information thanks to Sci-Hub? I’m almost sounding like a paid testimonial here, but I can’t over-emphasize the importance of having timely access to science. Sure, she did put a dent in the profits of companies like Elsevier and Wiley, and she disregarded copyright laws. Does this help advance science? I think the answer is ‘yes’. I don’t know what the future holds for Elbakyan, but Sci-Hub seems here to stay — whether the journals like it or not.

“A lawsuit isn’t going to stop [Sci-Hub], nor is there any obvious technical means. Everyone should be thinking about the fact that this is here to stay.” — Peter Suber, Harvard University