Science & Tech

How and Why Sci-Hub Helps Scientists Share Research Illegally

A website the public knows little about has become a critical tool for researchers to share their work without paywalls.

Scientific research depends on knowledge of cutting-edge work other researchers are conducting, in addition to new work building on that knowledge. Sci-Hub is trying to find ways to help share past research, but so far has only found itself in deeper trouble with the law.

In the world of online copyrighted material sharing, most people think only of sites like The Pirate Bay and people illegally downloading movies and television shows. There is another illegal sharing site that most have never heard of and which to many provides a critical service to the scientific community. That site is Sci-Hub.

What the site does is it makes it possible for scientific researchers to get past often very expensive paywalls to read other articles written by colleagues in their field.

Reviewing the latest published research is a critical part of the research and development process for scientists. Without it, knowledge of current thinking and breakthroughs already made by others is far less available. That information helps stimulate new ideas for further research by others. Ultimately that research can make it possible to develop innovations like possible cures for types of cancer or a new means to pull climate-damaging carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. New breakthroughs by one researcher often would not be possible without learning what others have done in their fields.

The legal approach to doing this is to do your own research, submit it to a publisher of a scientific journal. That journal’s editors send out the articles to experts for what is known as “peer review”. They comment and suggest edits. After some final back-and-forth with the original article writers, the articles are published.

One might think that the act of publishing would make the articles available for many to see, but that it not the case. Often the scientific journal publishers, like Elsevier, publish the final edited article in their journals and at the same time take away the copyright control of the article from the researchers who submitted it. The double-bind which results is the published journal version of the articles is only available to subscribers or as a per-article purchase. Titles, abstracts, and sometimes summaries of the articles are available for all to see, but that is all. For everything else, researchers must pay high fees for access. Worse still, because the researchers often have to give away copyrights to their own work to get it published in these journals, they often do not even have the right to distribute their own copies of their own work. Most get no money at all for publishing their articles either, with only the journal being the one which makes a profit on the submissions.

Enter Sci-Hub. This online service allowed those who have copies of scientific articles to post them for distribution, just as online pirate firms upload movies and episodes of television show episodes. Then researchers can go to the service, search for articles relevant to their field, and download the articles at no charge. All of which is good for the advancement of science except that it is illegal because the material is copyrighted.

The site was founded by Alexandra Elbakyan. She created it as a tool to help important research to be shared. She thought that making papers available to the public would be good test case of copyright law. It could even be argued that making the articles available was a sort of “fair use” provided the readers did not resell the material further. But that argument failed when the whole idea went to court.

As Elbakyan wrote about her experience, “When Sci-Hub became known, I thought it might be a good case against copyright law. When the law prevents science to develop [which Elbakyan insists it does when research is closeted away behind firewalls], that law must be repealed.” The publishers fired back quickly with lawsuits. After that, Elbakyan wrote, “Sci Hub was quickly banished as an ‘illegal’ solutions and projects like Unpaywall emerged and started promoting themselves as ‘legal’ alternatives to Sci-Hub.”

It seems like a logical argument. The U.S. Constitution describes the concept of copyright as intended to aid the progress of arts and science.

Despite that logic, Sci-Hub has since lost two major U.S. legal fights over what it was doing and had its domain names seized. Like The Pirate Bay and similar illegal video-sharing sites, Sci-Hub has continued to reemerge under different names and continues to operate. It does so both because of the strong beliefs of its founder about its importance, and because researchers find it very useful to their work. In fact, researchers who find important articles on Sci-Hub often even reference the Sci-Hub versions of the articles in the list of citations included with their own research publications.

As to the next step, Elbakyan hopes the public will help her fight for changes in copyright law which will break down these paywalls and help researchers get access to the papers they need. As she wrote, “Sci-Hub always intended to be legal, and advocated for the copyright law to be repealed or changed, so that it will not prohibit the development of science.”

Trillions does not advocate the illegal sharing of copyrighted material. In the case of Sci-Hub, however, it urges those reading this who believe there should be freer access to critical research information to lobby for change in copyright laws at the Federal level. There must be a better way than just locking up the information, especially after much of the research that is being published is often paid for with public funds or research foundations who want the research shared as widely as possible.