Amid Rising Prices for Academic Journal Subscriptions, Academics Look to the Dark Net for their Research Needs

March 7, 2016

Alexandra Elbakyan, renowned pirate of academic research, isn’t giving up. In 2011, Elbakyan was a student at Kazakhstan University growing frustrated with the vast amount of research held behind paywalls by publishers like Elsevier. To remedy this situation, Elbakyan created Sci-Hub, a website which provides access to academic papers hidden behind paywalls by using “access keys donated by academics lucky enough to study at institutions with an adequate range of subscriptions.” Once a paper is requested, it is stored in a database for future retrieval by other users. If Sci-Hub cannot initially access the paper that a researcher needs, the system will use other credentials until it succeeds.

Sci-Hub likely has access to more academic research than any one single university or possibly government in the world.

This system is a fast and efficient way for researchers to access the sources they need without paying on average $30 per paper.
Sci-Hub has been incredibly popular. Elbakyan estimates that Sci-Hub downloads hundreds of thousands of academic papers per day and the site has a total of “over 19 million visitors.” This astounding number of users is not surprising. Piracy of academic papers has been common outside of the United States and Western Europe for many years but the problem of unaffordable academic research has come to the United States as well. For example, Ivy League universities are longer able to easily afford “skyrocketing academic subscription fees.” Cornell University first cancelled its Elsevier subscription over a decade ago. Harvard University stated in an internal memo in 2012 that it was struggling to afford the subscription fees for journal publishers, “which bill the library around $3.5 million a year.”
Before Sci-Hub, researchers would post in online forums and request papers from other researchers who had a subscription. Also, the twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf is still used by researchers to request paywall protected papers. The hashtag “dates back to 2011 with the suggestion from Andrea Kuszewski . . .[using] a riff on a popular internet cat meme.” Like Sci-Hub, this hashtag has been met with mixed reviews, from those considering it a form of civil disobedience violating copyright laws to views that the hashtag facilitates the access of works that should be free for all to use.
Sci-Hub has drastically transformed the options for researchers and the site has made the search for articles more efficient and automated, users do not need to rely on another human to email them a paper which is required for the twitter or message board option. However, as Sci-Hub gained traction, it also gained rising criticism from publishers culminating in a lawsuit filed by Elsevier in New York District Court last June.
Elsevier alleged copyright infringement and violations of the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act “based upon Defendants’ unlawful access to, use, reproduction, and distribution of Elsevier’s copyright works.” (Compl. 15-CV-04282). Judge Sweet ordered a preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub late last year which made the website’s former domain unavailable. Judge Sweet noted that there “is a compelling public interest in fostering scientific achievement, and that ensuring broad access to scientific research is an important component of that effort.” Elsevier Inc., v., No. 15 CIV. 4282 RWS, 2015 WL 6657363, at *1 (S.D.N.Y. Oct. 30, 2015). However, he also noted that simply making copyrighted content available for free is not an appropriate remedy and the court must balance the “public interest in rewarding and incentivizing create efforts” with the “rights of copyright owners and the public interest in rewarding and incentivizing creative efforts.” Id.
In response, the Sci-Hub website appeared again simply using a different domain name. The website had even been updated and modified with a new English version in addition to the original Russian. Sci-Hub is also still presently available on the dark web and can be accessible via Tor, “a network of computers that passes web requests through a randomized series of servers in order to preserve visitors’ anonymity.” Elbakyan has told journalists that she isn’t giving up the fight to provide free access to research and is not deterred by the court order. It is likely publishers will continue clashing with Elbakyan and others like her.