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Researcher illegally shares millions of science papers free online to spread knowledge

February 17, 2016

By Paul Homewood 




From Science Alert:

A researcher in Russia has made more than 48 million journal articles – almost every single peer-reviewed paper every published – freely available online. And she’s now refusing to shut the site down, despite a court injunction and a lawsuit from Elsevier, one of the world’s biggest publishers.

For those of you who aren’t already using it, the site in question is Sci-Hub, and it’s sort of like a Pirate Bay of the science world. It was established in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who was frustrated that she couldn’t afford to access the articles needed for her research, and it’s since gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of papers being downloaded daily. But at the end of last year, the site was ordered to be taken down by a New York district court – a ruling that Elbakyan has decided to fight, triggering a debate over who really owns science.

"Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them," Elbakyan told Torrent Freak last year. "Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal."

If it sounds like a modern day Robin Hood struggle, that’s because it kinda is. But in this story, it’s not just the poor who don’t have access to scientific papers – journal subscriptions have become so expensive that leading universities such as Harvard and Cornell have admitted they can no longer afford them. Researchers have also taken a stand – with 15,000 scientists vowing to boycott publisher Elsevier in part for its excessive paywall fees.

Don’t get us wrong, journal publishers have also done a whole lot of good – they’ve encouraged better research thanks to peer review, and before the Internet, they were crucial to the dissemination of knowledge.

But in recent years, more and more people are beginning to question whether they’re still helping the progress of science. In fact, in some cases, the ‘publish or perish’ mentality is creating more problems than solutions, with a growing number of predatory publishers now charging researchers to have their work published – often without any proper peer review process or even editing.

"They feel pressured to do this," Elbakyan wrote in an open letter to the New York judge last year. "If a researcher wants to be recognised, make a career – he or she needs to have publications in such journals."

That’s where Sci-Hub comes into the picture. The site works in two stages. First of all when you search for a paper, Sci-Hub tries to immediately download it from fellow pirate database LibGen. If that doesn’t work, Sci-Hub is able to bypass journal paywalls thanks to a range of access keys that have been donated by anonymous academics (thank you, science spies).

This means that Sci-Hub can instantly access any paper published by the big guys, including JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier, and deliver it to you for free within seconds. The site then automatically sends a copy of that paper to LibGen, to help share the love.  

It’s an ingenious system, as Simon Oxenham explains for Big Think:

"In one fell swoop, a network has been created that likely has a greater level of access to science than any individual university, or even government for that matter, anywhere in the world. Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access – literally a world of knowledge."

That’s all well and good for us users, but understandably, the big publishers are pissed off. Last year, a New York court delivered an injunction against Sci-Hub, making its domain unavailable (something Elbakyan dodged by switching to a new location), and the site is also being sued by Elsevier for "irreparable harm" – a case that experts are predicting will win Elsevier around $750 to $150,000 for each pirated article. Even at the lowest estimations, that would quickly add up to millions in damages.

But Elbakyan is not only standing her ground, she’s come out swinging, claiming that it’s Elsevier that have the illegal business model.

"I think Elsevier’s business model is itself illegal," she told Torrent Freak, referring to article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits".

She also explains that the academic publishing situation is different to the music or film industry, where pirating is ripping off creators. "All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold," she said.

Elbakyan hopes that the lawsuit will set a precedent, and make it very clear to the scientific world either way who owns their ideas.

"If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge," she said. "We have to win over Elsevier and other publishers and show that what these commercial companies are doing is fundamentally wrong."

To be fair, Elbakyan is somewhat protected by the fact that she’s in Russia and doesn’t have any US assets, so even if Elsevier wins their lawsuit, it’s going to be pretty hard for them to get the money.

Still, it’s a bold move, and we’re pretty interested to see how this fight turns out – because if there’s one thing the world needs more of, it’s scientific knowledge. In the meantime, Sci-Hub is still up and accessible for anyone who wants to use it, and Elbakyan has no plans to change that anytime soon.



An interesting development indeed! From my own point of view, I have often complained about publically funded scientists hiding their work, which we have paid for, behind a paywall.

While I have some sympathy with the likes of Elsevier, who have costs to recover, I do believe that all papers should be freely available online which have been public funded, whether via grants or through organisations such as the Met Office.



The Sci-Hub site is here

  1. markl permalink
    February 17, 2016 6:34 pm


  2. Keith Gugan permalink
    February 17, 2016 6:35 pm

    The real problem here is deciding which research is genuine and which is bogus. I’m not clear where peer review appears in all of this, but if peer review disappears how is joe public to know what to trust. It would be just great however to see the alarmists backbone of “97% of all scientists think ….. ” melt away and to see a real ‘consensus’ emerge.

    • catweazle666 permalink
      February 17, 2016 7:29 pm

      “but if peer review disappears how is joe public to know what to trust”

      Just because a paper is peer reviewed is absolutely zero guarantee of its trustworthiness.

    • February 17, 2016 10:07 pm

      Problem is peer review turned into pals review (not just in climate)

    • Tim Hammond permalink
      February 18, 2016 11:20 am

      Peer research is largely meaningless. The tests are can the results be reproduced, can others find errors, can others show flaws or show fraud?

      Much – perhaps most – peer reviewed research is withdrawn or substantially changed after others try and knock it down. Only the most robust work survives. That’s how its supposed to work.

  3. February 17, 2016 7:11 pm

    I think Alexandra is onto something. Let’s consider intellectual property for a moment.

    I’m an engineer and have been for over thirty years. When occasion arises that I am compelled by circumstance (necessity is the mother of invention) to invent and patent something, it has always ended up “belonging” to either the company I work for or the company my company works for. Period.

    Say for instance though, that I were to write my life story as an engineer; and I now have the manuscript in hand and I’ve got myself convinced I’ve got a best-seller on my hands. I’m pretty sure I own this priceless hypothetical manuscript, but if you think about it for a moment, it isn’t worth anything…because no one has bought a copy. So I’ll need a publisher.

    I have no direct knowledge of how all this works, but I imagine it involves agreeing to surrendering a right to the publisher to control, in some manner, my hypothetical literary masterpiece; like I won’t serialize it on by blog; go to another publisher, and so forth.

    Now we both get to make some money. I put forth the initial effort, get no re-numeration, but have 100% ownership, and then surrender some right or another to a publisher and so forth.

    Let’s say however, that a medical researcher is working on a cure for male-pattern baldness and is under the employment of a private enterprise. She finds it! But doesn’t tell anybody at work intending to “cash in” by spilling her guts to the competition – for a fat fee. Besides being unethical, this hypothetical case is probably also in violation of law if she had (and most certainly would have…) signed a non-disclosure agreement with her company as a condition of employment.

    So who owns publicly funded intellectual property like publicly funded science research papers? How does the publisher (Elsevier) own anything if the research was already paid for publicly? To me, it’s perfectly fine to set up an operation charging for science papers. Kind of a nice scam/service but what did Elsevier pay for those papers? What if another operation were set up mirroring Elsevier that charged half what they do? Is that wrong? What right was surrendered by the author of said paper? If there was no payment, and no right surrendered, how is Elsevier to be make whole by means of a lawsuit?

    Rhetorical questions I know; but seriously, what is owed to Elsevier if they never owned anything?

    • February 17, 2016 8:45 pm

      For Elsevier, Wiley, and the lot, to get published in their stable of technical/research/science journals the paper writers surrender the copyright to the journal. Price of admission. Same with Nature and Science.

      • February 18, 2016 1:29 am


        Thanks for the response.

        So it’s more like the author owns the work because they are his or hers words; and further the author has permission to publish work done for whomever provided resources, possibly public monies in the cases we are considering.

        But that IP is surrendered to the Journal which provides peer-review and makes the work widely available – for a price. Sounds to me to be an antiquated system of vanity publishing while creating a slush-fund for insiders.

        There’s got to be a better way now days with much research being done with public monies – only then can scientific papers be written anyhow.

    • KTM permalink
      February 17, 2016 9:55 pm

      The journal adds formatting to the manuscript, and they own the copyright to the final formatted version. However, in most cases the author is allowed to post a “draft” manuscript that contains all of the same text and figures but lacks the formatting added by the journal.

      Anything funded by NIH/NSF is required to be made freely available on PubMedCentral after 1 year. This free article is often the Author’s version, not the final formatted article that appeared in the journal. It’s the time between initial publication and the 1 year free availability that is mandated by the NIH where the journals can demand access fees.

      • February 18, 2016 1:31 am


        Thanks for that. Clearer now.

  4. February 17, 2016 7:57 pm

    Great news, charging to even look at papers has been a disgrace for years; it is impossible to see if they are useful from the abstract, and normally they are not! This meant that only academic institutions or rich companies could access publications readily.

    The internet is certainly a force for good in terms of the papers and music that we are being charge for long after the artist or author has died: music copyright is even more disgraceful than the IP type.

  5. February 17, 2016 8:38 pm

    I literally spent thousands of dollars buying hundreds of research papers from technical journals including Elsevier’s stable while doing my nanocarbon research and patenting. There were almost none that were not from university researchers or national labs, both funded by government research grants on energy storage. Not just US, but Europe, Japan, Korea.
    And with the internet and electronic publishing, there is no longer a need for the paper journal any more than a paper newspaper. Even if Elsevier wins their case, they have are losing the publishing war. Technology has obsoleted their business model, and they never did stand for quality control since the peer review process fundamentally does not provide it. Over half of biomedical research not reproducable. Pal review in climate science. In my corner of energy storage (helmholtz double layer capacitance) amazing goofs got published starting in early 1970’s. Confounding aqueous with aprotic electrolytes. Experimental results at clear variance with the so called conclusions and abstract. Wrong data interpretations or assumptions about experimental conditions (graphene edge plane differing in capacitance from the edge plane, and Delevy transmission line model of pore resistance being my personal favorite goofs).

    • February 18, 2016 1:33 am

      …”Technology has obsoleted their business model, and they never did stand for quality control since the peer review process fundamentally does not provide it. Over half of biomedical research not reproducible…”


  6. ralfellis permalink
    February 17, 2016 8:43 pm

    The problem is the huge costs. I can buy a 350 page tablet book for £4, but a three page paper costs $35. Elsiver need to rediscover the Amazon truism, that if you lower the costs a lot more people will download the paper. Especially if you have no idea if the paper is any good, or totally relevant to your research, before you buy it.

  7. Tim Hammond permalink
    February 18, 2016 11:16 am

    Good riddance to the science publishing industry. It now has seriously malign effects on science, from the obsessive need to get published, to the seizure of editorial control by politically motivated editors and through the now intellectually bankrupt peer review which as been irreversibly contaminated by politics, back-scratching and fear of standing against orthodoxy.

    Publish online and let everyone try and reproduce your results and prove you wrong. An open marketplace in ideas will work far better – and probably a few sites will become the new gold standards for proper science.

  8. AlexB permalink
    February 20, 2016 1:24 am

    I forget, is Elsevier the one who recently had a whole team quit to start up an open source journal with a similar scope?

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