Research Pirates and Where to Find Them

Unless your computer is using a subscribed university network, you, a member of the public, are likely required to pay a fee, usually around 30 dollars, for access to a single article. Publishers such as Elsevier and other companies, which hold access to thousands of journals, have capital that rivals companies like Delta Airlines. The issue is, however, these companies don’t benefit the public nor those who conducted the countless hours of research to produce these articles. So should scholarly work be free to the public? Some fear that should these articles be made free to the public, it might be difficult to standards rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for. Others, such as Alexandra Elbakyan, have a different perspective.

Photo Books by Erica Schoonmaker at CC-BY

A few years back, Elbakyan, a student in Kazakhstan, decided to set loose hundreds of thousands of documents. To this, she developed Sci-Hub, which allows users to easily download expensive papers for free. See here.

Since 2011, Sci-Hub has been providing the public with millions of academic journals and articles, including everything from old science experiments to revolutionary biomedical developments. It does so through university networks subscription databases, often without consent or knowledge of the university. Users who wish to access paid articles can download them from Sci-Hub, which draws articles from a university that subscribes to the database that owns said articles. In downloading the PDF, Sci-Hub itself saves a copy on its own server for the next time a user needs an article.

Increasingly, researchers from all over are looking to Sci-Hub for their academic and scholarly needs. Sci-Hub is currently home to over fifty million papers. In the past six months before the March of 2016, Sci-Hub provided over 28 million documents to the public, millions of them came from Iran, China, and India. The publisher with the most requested Sci-Hub articles was by far Elsevier. See here.

Last year, Elsevier unsurprisingly sued Sci-Hub for violation of its copyright. Elsevier’s lawyers argued that the two websites “operate an international network of piracy and copyright infringement by circumventing legal and authorized means of access to the ScienceDirect database.” The judge for the New York Southern District Court ruled in favor of the publisher, and Sci-Hub was shut down.

Soon, the service popped up again under a different domain. However, even if the new domain gets shut down, Sci-Hub can still be reached through the channels of the dark web.

So who is the monster here? Who is to blame for the price of these articles? To whom do we attribute the distribution of these articles? The quality of these articles? Do we blame the legally sound companies like Elvesier that charge a great deal for quality articles? Are people and websites like Elbakyan and her illegal Sci-Hub at fault?

I feel that access to knowledge is vitally important to who we are. It is a basic necessity, like food, water, or shelter. Elbakyan was right to provide these articles to the public. Because of her work, we can do things like study for medical school and research diseases suffered by those we love. Companies like Elsevier charge an exorbitant rate for documents that could help countless individuals across the globe do better for themselves and those around them. I believe the criminality is not within the nature of Sci-Hub, as the court so wrongfully ruled, but rather, in companies such as Elsevier who take advantage of our curiosity and dependency upon information to change the world.

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