I post with some hesitation, because I am a strong supporter of copyright and the protection of intellectual property. However, I am also a scientist who values access to information. In science knowledge revolves around “the literature,” which takes the form of published journal articles. Twenty years ago one’s access to the literature was determined by one’s proximity to a library with extensive holdings of printed material and a good inter-library loan program. Now most scientific journals have an online presence, offering near instantaneous access to their contents for subscribers or for students and professors at institutions whose libraries subscribe. Of course, one could twenty years ago and can still today request a copy of an article from the author at no cost.
Until recently, online access to the literature was easier for people at rich institutions or in first-world countries, where the pricey journal subscriptions were most likely to be purchased (an individual subscription to Science is ~$125/year; an institutional subscription to Brain Research is > $13,000/year!). Third-world scientists, or those at poorer institutions, found access more limited. Now there is Sci-Hub, a web page based in Russia billing itself “the first website in the world to provide mass & public access to research papers.” Sci-Hub, founded in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, offers access to more than 58,000,000 scientific articles at no cost to the reader, using methods that violate copyright laws in many countries. Their justification seems to be that the articles were written by scientists for scientists, and should be accessible; the scientific work was in nearly all cases supported by public funds and should be publicly available and not purchased from publishers whose role is simply the dissemination of the material. The publishers, of course, provide an important service by vetting research; the review process helps to ensure that journals publish quality work.
Scientists, in many cases the very people whose papers are accessed in pirated form on Sci-Hub, seem to approve of what Sci-Hub offers: a poll by the journal Science found that 88% of scientists approve of the downloading of pirated papers. The high level of support for the activity might reflect the nature of science itself, which relies on shared information; it also probably reflects the fact that the scientists lose nothing as a result of the piracy (they were not paid by the journals whose copyright is being violated) and in fact probably benefit by having their work more widely read and cited.
This post was prompted by my recent experiences with Sci-Hub. The site has come through for me every time I have sought a paper in the past two weeks–far better performance than I experienced, say, a year ago. Sci-Hub has become my go-to site when I want to access a paper. It is fast, convenient, and it works. Sci-Hub was described in another article in Science as “the world’s de facto open-access research library.”
I see the wide-spread use of Sci-Hub as support of open access to scientific information, but unfortunately Sci-Hub only works because it can pirate papers from other sites. In many cases Sci-Hub gets journal articles by gaining access to the computer system of a university that has paid for subscription to the journal. Thus Sci-Hub works because others are paying. When those others no longer pay, Sci-Hub’s access will disappear. Sci-Hub should thus be viewed as a temporary measure, a tool providing a necessary service and pointing to the future, but a tool whose mode of operation is not sustainable. The more easily available Sci-Hub makes the literature, the less willing people will be to pay for subscriptions to the journals, so Sci-Hub’s sources will be gone.
I offer no solution, only hope that the future of the scientific literature is open access. Sci-Hub’s success demonstrates that this is what we want. Now it is up to scientists, publishers, and libraries to find a way to make it sustainable.