Should academic research be free? This question has been raging in the academic community for years now, though many free-the-data evangelists are not waiting for an answer, instead choosing to simply obliterate the paywalls by putting scientific research online anyway (illegally). The current Robin Hood of this movement is Alexandra Elbakyan, whose website Sci-Hub offers free, instant, and wholly unauthorized access to pretty much any academic research paper ever published. Her site is the focus of an excellent reported feature in the most recent issue of Science magazine by John Bohannon, which answers the question “Who’s downloading pirated papers?” with a resounding “everyone.”
This story, and an accompanying editorial, were published Thursday and Friday and strategically placed in front of the paywall that curtains off parts of the rest of the site. While the news piece is compelling, the op-ed lacks the same self-awareness. In it, Science editor-in-chief Marcia McNutt professes to love Sci-Hub while also enumerating the dark and terrible costs of unauthorized academic downloading. She fails to make a convincing argument about either.
First, a bit of background. The Sci-Hub archives contain nearly 50 million documents, with more being added every day; these archives have been built primarily without the explicit permission of the publishers that hold the copyright to this material. By maintaining tight control over those copyrights, academic publishers can charge often-exorbitant fees for annual subscriptions and one-time access to articles; yearly subscriptions to some specialized science, technology, engineering, and math journals can cost upward of $10,000. In 2015, the academic publisher Elsevier earned about $1.58 billion in profit on about $9.36 billion in revenue. Knowledge is power!
Academic publishers hate Sci-Hub, naturally, and have gone to great lengths to fight it. In 2015, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub’s founder, Elbakyan, seeking injunctive relief and up to $150,000 in damages for each Elsevier paper that Sci-Hub has illicitly served. But underresourced researchers, students, journalists, and readers around the world love Sci-Hub because it offers an easy and expedient way to acquire research papers that might be otherwise rendered functionally inaccessible. A thorough researcher will often need to examine hundreds of articles in her field of study in hopes of finding one or more that are relevant to her research topic. If her sponsoring institution subscribes to the journals in question, she’s in luck. If her school doesn’t have a subscription—or if she is an independent researcher with no institutional affiliation—she is left with five basic options: Spend thousands of dollars on access fees; somehow gain access to another library that does have access; persuade the journals to grant her access to the relevant material for free or at reduced cost; drop the research project entirely; or find a way around the paywall. The latter option is almost always the easiest one. Researchers know very well that the authors of academic research papers do not profit from the sale of their work; indeed, they sign over their article’s copyright to the publisher as a condition of publication. So it’s easy for them to justify evading a paywall via Sci-Hub or other means.
In fact, it is perhaps egregiously easy. In his Science story, Bohannon bears out his headline’s assertion that everyone uses Sci-Hub. Bohannon uses six months’ worth of Sci-Hub download data provided to him by Elbakyan to study where the site’s downloaders are coming from and what they are downloading.
He found that Sci-Hub fills download requests from around the world, not just from developing nations. The top downloaders for the six-month period surveyed were Iran, China, India, Russia, and the United States; the top publisher downloaded, by far, was Elsevier. Based on their proximity to large research centers (the data show flurries of activity close to New York City, Washington, D.C., and East Lansing, Michigan, home of Michigan State University), it’s fair to assume that many of the U.S. downloaders already had authorized access to the articles they downloaded but found it more expedient to use Sci-Hub than their university libraries, even though they have legitimate subscriptions.
Which makes some of McNutt’s arguments all the more bizarre. In an attempt to challenge those who argue that the high prices charged by academic-journal publishers are unjustifiable in the digital era, she states: “[T]oday, digital publishing is just as expensive as print for a state-of-the-art Web design.” Subscription revenue covers the salaries for journal editors and copy editors, designers who create charts and graphs to accompany articles, PR people, and a tech team that works tirelessly “so that authors can submit their manuscripts and readers can access the journals more conveniently.”
Frankly, if this editorial is the best case that Science can make against Sci-Hub, then academic publishing is in more trouble than I thought. Is digital publishing really “just as expensive as print”? As someone who has spent almost 15 years working in both print and digital journalism in many different capacities, I do not understand how this could be true, unless these journals are being cheated by unscrupulous contractors or are just spending their money unwisely. (I suppose this is possible, but it does not justify the continued costs.)
It is strange to see McNutt argue that academic publishers work tirelessly to make their own websites convenient for readers, given that Bohannon’s reporting indicates that readers find these websites thoroughly inconvenient. For all the money these publishers are purportedly spending on state-of-the-art web design, it’s odd that their sites are nowhere near as easy to use as the search engine Elbakyan has been able to build—and for a larger data set, to boot. But I suspect that McNutt defines the word convenient far differently than most people do. The entire business model for academic publishing relies on successfully monetizing inconvenience. This perpetual state of inconvenience is the whole reason that Sci-Hub exists.
McNutt goes on to explain that illicit downloads can make it harder for academic authors to “assess the impact of their work,” an important component of the scientific process. Researchers need to know the extent to which their work is being read and discussed—not least because that data is useful to have when they are writing grant proposals for funding to do more research. But if Bohannon’s reporting makes anything clear, it is that Elbakyan has plenty of data on what papers are being accessed and when and has readily shared it with a publication whose executives have a vested interest in shutting her down. It is not inconceivable that she could devise a way to share these stats with the researchers themselves.
McNutt also warns that Sci-Hub might lead to reduced subscription revenues for many journals, which in turn might imperil the nonprofit scientific societies that publish some of those journals. The argument is also weak. Academic societies have been making this claim for over two decades, ever since the first major efforts to put journals online and digitize their backfiles. These societies are still here. If a site like Sci-Hub really threatens to decimate a given organization’s membership, then that organization wasn’t providing enough value to its members in the first place. And while charts and multimedia can add great value to research papers, they cannot and should not in themselves justify high production and subscription prices. Ask any researcher what he or she would prefer—multimedia and charts or easy-to-access free journals—and I bet you the latter would win handily.
For many overseas downloaders, the choice to use Sci-Hub is less a matter of convenience than of necessity. Bohannon opens his story with an anecdote about an Iranian engineering student named Meysam Rahimi whose Ph.D. research required him to read dozens of papers found in journals and databases to which his university library did not subscribe. Purchasing all of those papers individually, Rahimi calculated, would cost about $1,000 per week, money that he did not have. “The choice seemed clear,” Bohannon writes: “Either quit the Ph.D. or illegally obtain copies of the papers.” It comes as no surprise that Rahimi chose the latter option. And it also comes as no surprise that McNutt’s editorial barely addresses Rahimi’s concern.