Sci-Hub: What It Is and Why It Matters
The essentials on an open access controversy
By Marcus Banks
May 31, 2016
Sci-Hub is a website that makes more than 48 million scholarly research articles available online to anyone for free. However, many if not most of these articles are still under copyright and are therefore normally kept behind paywalls.
Journal publisher Elsevier, which claimed it was losing hundreds to thousands of dollars for each of its articles pirated on the site, sued to have it shut down. For these reasons, Judge Robert W. Sweet of the Southern District of New York ordered Sci-Hub.org to cease operations in October 2015.
But that’s not the end of the story.
The controversies surrounding Sci-Hub touch on many hot-button topics in librarianship—from open access and copyright law to frustration with high journal prices and support for the underdog. This primer lays out multiple perspectives on the issues and provides ways for librarians to become informed and involved.
How did Sci-Hub happen?
One of Sci-Hub’s main user groups is researchers around the world who do not have ready access to many articles through their own academic libraries due to the cost of subscribing to or licensing this content. Sci-Hub’s founder Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, has said this lack of universal access violates Article 27 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right freely to … share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” From her perspective, placing scholarly articles under copyright is unjustifiable, and Sci-Hub’s actions constitute a legitimate form of civil disobedience.
Citing these arguments, Sci-Hub did not comply with Sweet’s judicial order, choosing instead to continue operations through a new web domain. (At press time, the site is at sci-hub.bz, but it may move again.) Elsevier has since filed another legal complaint requesting once again that Sci-Hub cease operations. This effort is also likely to fail. Elbakyan’s current whereabouts are unknown; she is believed to be in Russia. In any case, she is out of reach of United States courts. Any legal sanctions against Sci-Hub will be hard to enforce, resulting in a game of legal whack-a-mole as the site will most likely pop up somewhere else every time the hammer drops.
Although Sci-Hub shares the same goal as open access advocates—making online access to scholarly articles available to anyone—the means are very different. Open access articles are available from many publishers, including Elsevier. They are freely available directly through publisher websites, rather than through third-party aggregators like Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub is an extremely controversial discovery service, not a publisher.
How does Sci-Hub work?
Sci-Hub uses login credentials (a username and password) for the libraries of numerous academic institutions in order to access the protected servers where copyrighted articles are stored. These credentials are available only to authorized members of university communities. According to Sci-Hub, people from around the world have willingly donated their login credentials for the purpose of making all scholarly articles freely available. Although some users probably have donated their credentials, it is unlikely that Sci-Hub obtained all of them this way. Elsevier’s court filings demonstrated that Sci-Hub obtained institutional logins on PayPal, for example. Edward Sanchez, head of library and information technology at Marquette University in Milwaukee, has also documented how Sci-Hub uses phishing campaigns—in which individuals falsely claim to be authorized university representatives—to steal credentials. The most plausible conclusion is that Sci-Hub has obtained credentials through a combination of willing donations and more nefarious means.
Once Sci-Hub obtains a university’s login credentials, it can access the protected areas of that university’s library servers. It works like this: A Sci-Hub user enters a search. Sci-Hub starts crawling for articles. Once the article is found, Sci-Hub sends it to the user and also caches a copy of the article on its own servers. When another user retrieves that same article, Sci-Hub delivers it directly without searching again in library servers.
And so on, all the way to 48 million articles.
What does Sci-Hub mean?
Where you stand depends on where you sit, in life as with Sci-Hub.
“Elbakyan herself admits to copyright infringement,” notes M. Lui Simpson, executive director of international copyright and trade enforcement for the Association of American Publishers (AAP). (Elbakyan has justified her actions in a letter to Sweet and numerous other venues, but there is no doubt that they are outside the law.) To Simpson, this is a clear and massive case of piracy.
Simpson’s colleague John Tagler, vice president for professional and scholarly publishing at AAP, points out that there are many publisher-provided sources of free or low-cost journal articles. For example, the Research4Life (research4life.org) initiative provides “access to research in the developing world” about a variety of topics.
A mixture of subscription and open access models is the most probable future, but the rhetoric that often surrounds this topic generates more heat than light.
Angela Cochran, director of journals for the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE), offers the perspective of a scholarly publisher. Cochran notes that publishers such as Elsevier, which had a 34% profit margin in 2014 according to The Financial Times, do not comprise the entire scholarly publishing industry. Elsevier publishes more than 2,000 journals and has total company revenues of more than $2 billion; ASCE publishes 35 journals and uses subscription revenues to fund key activities of its scholarly society, such as conferences. And ASCE’s members are not clamoring for open access. The needs of various research communities are distinct, requiring different business models. A mixture of subscription and open access models is the most probable future, but the rhetoric that often surrounds this topic generates more heat than light. In Cochran’s view, “This insistence that all publishers are evil and should be taken down at all costs is not really helping the conversation move forward.”
Mike Taylor, a software engineer at Index Data and an open access advocate, appreciates the contributions of scholarly publishers. Publishers coordinate the peer-review process that vets journal articles, format articles to be reader-friendly, and make them easily discoverable online. That said, the fact that scholarly publishers retain copyright—and with that the terms of distribution—over their articles leads inevitably to workarounds like Sci-Hub. “Why should publishers control any of this?” Taylor asks. “They’re service providers.” Although he has reservations about Sci-Hub’s likely methods, he believes that on the whole Sci-Hub is a positive development because it increases access to the results of research.
Kevin Smith, director of the Office of Copyright and Scholarly Communication at Duke University and incoming dean of libraries at the University of Kansas, is also focused on copyright. Smith draws upon the legal distinction between things that are prohibited because they are wrong in themselves, such as murder (malum in se), and those that are illegal only because we have chosen to prohibit them (malum prohibitum). Any copyright violation is malum prohibitum because the terms of copyright could always be different. In Smith’s view, our current copyright framework is “overly protective” of the interests of content providers, such as publishers. Publishers do have a legitimate and valid copyright interest, but the balance of interests between publishers and consumers could be different.
Here is where librarians could make a difference—through advocacy to recalibrate copyright law for the digital age. In a recent piece for College and Research Libraries News, Sanchez and Carrie Russell, director of the American Library Association’s Program on Public Access to Information, offered several suggestions. These include active educational campaigns about open access and open licensing as well as reallocation of collection development resources toward products that facilitate a more open ecosystem.
Another option, notes Barbara Fister, librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minnesota, is for librarians to become publishers themselves. The Library Publishing Coalition is one effort in this direction. Launched in 2014, the Library Publishing Coalition now comprises 61 colleges or universities “dedicated to advancing the field of library publishing.” The Lever Press, a newly formed consortium of libraries at liberal arts colleges, offers one example of a library publishing effort. Once it is established, Lever will make all of its work available via open access.
As these varied perspectives show, we are clearly in a time of ferment with respect to the evolution of scholarly publishing. If nothing else, Sci-Hub has hastened the speed and vigor of this conversation.MARCUS BANKS is head of the Blaisdell Medical Library at the University of California, Davis. Views expressed here are his own or those of the sources he interviewed.
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