Of pirated papers and pillaging publishers

Written by Lizzie Harrett

From California to Caracas, individuals are illegally downloading research papers worldwide. BioTechniques investigates the controversy.

Described as the “Pirate Bay” of academic publishing, millions of journal articles are being illegally downloaded using Sci Hub.

Credit: bluecoat.com

They say there’s “no such thing as a free lunch,” but what if you substitute your sandwiches for journal articles? If you’re fortunate enough to belong to an academic institution with plentiful library subscriptions, you will rarely hit that infuriating paywall when browsing through abstracts. However, for those with no academic affiliation or whose institutions cannot afford library subscriptions, access to a PDF copy of an article can cost at least $60 if it is not open access. That’s a lot more than a lunchtime meal deal.

“My PhD proposal deadline was fast approaching and at the last minute I needed to read an article published in a journal with no open access,” said Heidi, a current PhD student at a leading UK university who wished to remain anonymous.

As a prospective student, Heidi had no institutional library access. She’d been relying on the goodwill of others to send across paywall blocked articles, but her deadline was fast approaching. “I googled ways of getting around the paywall and stumbled upon Sci Hub. I inserted the DOI code into the website and the paper immediately appeared on my screen. It was that easy,” she said.

Heidi is not alone. Her paper was one of 28 million documentsdownloaded in the first 6 months of 2016 via Sci Hub. Founded by Kazakhstani student Alexandra Elbakyan in 2011 who was frustrated at the costs incurred accessing articles, Sci Hub has unsurprisingly more than ruffled a few feathers in the publishing community. While she was named one of Nature’s “People Who Mattered in Science” in 2016, Elbakyan was also faced with a lawsuit from publishing giant Elsevier in 2015, stating that “plaintiffs will almost certainly be entitled to statutory damages of up to $150,000 per infringed work.” The lawsuit forced the website to shut down, but like a hydra, it reared its head again by simply popping up on another domain. Facing an extradition charge, Elkabyan has gone into hiding, quietly working on her History of Science degree while maintaining the website.

A Perfect Storm

The lack of guilt people feel when disregarding copyrights for internet content may be making it easier for people to pirate without entering a moral dilemma. An individual may be horrified at the thought of walking into a café and stealing a “free lunch,” but they conversely may believe that all internet content should be free. After all, Napster provided individuals a chance to get their music for no cost and almost single-handedly brought down the music industry. These attitudes appear to transfer across to the field of academic publishing, with a Science survey finding that 88% of respondents felt it was not wrong to download pirated papers. “Although I don’t use Sci Hub now as I am affiliated with a university, I felt no guilt at downloading a paper and using it when I needed to. I know legally it’s theft, but it doesn’t feel that way when you’re simply clicking through a website,” said Heidi.

Whilst Heidi no longer needs to rely on Sci Hub, others are not so lucky. Daniel Llavernas is an entomologist based in Venezuela. “Venezuela is going through some very turbulent times politically, and our budgets for research are at 16% what they should be. At the institution I used to work at, we had zero to minimal access to the journals I needed for both my own research and for teaching. We had absolutely no choice but to access Sci Hub.”

Even within the USA, institutions are struggling to keep up with the costs. Harvard University, one of the richest institutions in the world, was struggling to pay the subscription fees to all its journals, according to a 2012 memo. Across the pond in the UK, universities also continue to rack up staggering bills: In 2014, just 19 universities were spending £15.7 million on subscription fees to Elsevier alone

“Elsevier can be seen as the big bad wolf of this debate. My financial tip is if you’re going to buy shares, buy them in Elsevier!” said Matthew Cobb, Professor of Zoology at The University of Manchester. The figures speak for themselves, with Elsevier making profits of $1.58 billion and $9.36 billion in revenue in 2015.

“The fees for simply accessing this research are extraordinary enough. The science that is being produced is overwhelmingly the product of public money in the UK, but the publishers have learned to expect nice profits from it. There’s also all the free labor, or heavily subsidized academic labor, that we [as academics] do: peer-reviewing articles, submitting research, editing research,” said John, a researcher at a leading UK University who supports Sci Hub and wishes to remain anonymous. “It’s engaged in redistribution of public goods and returns them to the public, which they pay for via their taxes. So I don’t feel bad about using Sci Hub. In fact, I revel in its elegance, simplicity and scope.”

It’s easy to see how this controversy surrounding journals has created a perfect storm. Academics must consider a journal’s impact factor for the sake of their careers when publishing while also facing constant financial pressure to keep their heads above water—yet the publisher still makes a profit.

On the other hand, people may complain about public science not being free, but they cannot forget the resources and money that go into preparing those final PDFs. It takes a vast wealth of skills to publish a journal. From screening submitted papers, coordinating peer review, editing the papers, laying them out in a readable format, promoting the published researcher, and printing the journal, none of these things come free—something Sci Hub proponents are keen to forget.

Some worry that channelling this anger by supporting Sci Hub may be misplaced. “Sci Hub is a criminal enterprise,” said Rick Anderson, Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communications at the University of Utah. “Elbakyan believes that it’s wrong for Elsevier to sell access to content, and that’s fair enough—but to say it’s illegal is simply, factually, wrong. In reality, what Sci Hub is doing is illegal.”

Open Access

One response to the frustration many academics feel towards the publishing industry has been the establishment of open access publishing, either in special sections of journals or in journals that are entirely free of any access restrictions. Indeed, PLoS One provides paywall-free research with the goal of eliminating a career ladder that depends on the impact factors of journals where researchers publish (1).

“However, some publishers have used the open access movement to their own advantage to drive profits even further. You often have to pay an additional charge on top of the submission fee to make it restriction-free,” lamented John. “This means the public can be paying into the pockets of the publishing giants three times over through taxation. For submission, for access, and then for open access.”

While publishers may be hurting the open access movement, Sci Hub is also damaging it. In a blog post for IEEE, Kathy Pretz argues that “organizations wishing to help those researchers will not have the financial resources to do so” if Sci Hub starts to seriously impact non-profit journals or open access journals by stealing their website traffic and resources.

Estimates are that Sci Hub is siphoning off 5% of Elsevier’s traffic, which is unlikely to massively dent profits. “What is really interesting is that people are going straight to Sci Hub rather than first checking if an article is open access. I for one was struck at how simple the user interface was when I first started to have a play around with it,” said John. “It would be ironic if Sci Hub started to steal download hits from open access journals at a significant level, which users could obtain without pirating.”

Data Breaches Ahead?

Anderson also has concerns about the methods Sci Hub uses to access these articles. Elkabayn has previously statedthat she uses institutional log-ins donated by academics, but there are also claims that she obtains this information through deception, using phishing emails—claims that she has been careful to not exactly deny.

“When an individual’s account appears to be compromised by Sci Hub due to the extraordinary amount of downloads going through it, the publishers inform us, and we have to change login settings for the user,” Anderson stated. “Although I’ve not done any longitudinal work on it, there absolutely seems to have been an increase in these account breaches in the last few years. Whether that is linked to Sci Hub has yet to be determined.”

Log-in details do not only provide access to journals but are also used for many administrative tasks, including access to email accounts, accessing tax information and departmental budgets, and on a science health campus, retrieving medical records too. “This leads to the question, can Sci Hub be trusted with this information?” asked Anderson.

This answer is quickly forthcoming. “I absolutely would not trust Sci Hub with this personal information. Elbakyan there seems to be staggeringly naïve about this issue. This is before you even consider whether there is nefarious intent,” Anderson said.

At the University of Utah, the library is taking internet security seriously. “We have created online LibGuides that warn users about sharing network credentials, and our campus has also recently implemented two-step authentication. The stakes are high. Not only could a data breach occur, but the license agreements that we’ve signed put everyone on campus under the obligation to maintain security of their authentication details. When you share your network credentials, either intentionally or not, you are putting not only yourself but the whole campus in danger of losing access to licensed content,” explained Anderson.

What Next?

“People have always used methods to get around paywalls,” said Cobb. “As a graduate student in the 1980s, I would visit a public library or ask for a reprint request through written communication.” These approaches have changed with the internet and the growing sentiment that everything should be free.

Sci Hub isn’t the only method used. People seeking access to papers use the popular hashtag #ICanHazPDF and post requests on forum sites such as Reddit. These approaches can be compared to simply dropping a hard copy of a PDF on a colleague’s desk. “Sci Hub is of course large-scale theft; Elkabayn has managed to steal the entire academic database!” said Cobb.

The future of the tension between Sci Hub and publishing remains uncertain. “I think it will largely depend on the legal outcomes of the Sci Hub case,” said John. “Although it appears to be deadlocked with an extradition warrant that cannot be executed.”

So while your literary lunch may come at no cost to you if you chose to use Sci Hub, the legal and ethical costs could far outweigh your savings. Perhaps the old saying still stands.