Sci-Hub, created by Alexandra Elbakian in 2011, is a free online archive that makes available a huge number of scientific papers otherwise kept behind paywalls on the sites of the main academic journals. It is used by millions of people in countries around the world, who download some two hundred thousand scientific articles every day, and survives through donations made by the users in recognition of the enormous value it provides.
Elbakian, who has been dubbed science’s pirate queen, has been compared to Aaron Swartz or Edward Snowden, and has been found guilty by courts on several occasions as a result of multi-million-dollar copyright infringement lawsuits by publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley, the American Chemical Society and others, but since she lives in Russia and does not own property in the countries where she has been sued, she remains safe and is unlikely to be extradited anytime soon. Nature magazine named her as one of the ten most important people in the world of science in 2016.
As a result of the constant legal challenges Sci-Hub faces, and the different domain names it has had to adopt over the years, Mastercard, VISA or PayPal will not allow their services to be used for donations (most are through cryptocurrencies), while some governments have tried to restrict access to it.
But Sci-hub is no ordinary irregular downloading site, like The Pirate Bay, a non-essential service aimed at the general public; instead it has become a fundamental service for many people in the scientific community, who being more tech savvy, use proxies, VPNs, etc. to access the materials it needs to work. Entertainment is readily available these days via reasonably priced subscriptions, but articles published in scientific journals are unaffordable to many people.
For academics who publish research papers and who are looking for citation impact, making their articles accessible on Sci-Hub is becoming increasingly important: a recent study shows that articles downloaded from Sci-Hub are generally cited an average of 1.72 times more than articles that are published elsewhere, and that the number of Sci-Hub downloads is a strong predictor of the number of citations in the future.
At the same time, the service has an influence on the production and dissemination of scientific materials, so much so that in a country like India, with a strong academic community but scarcity of resources, judges have decided to listen to all parties involved, including a community of scientific users outraged at the prospect of a blockade. Sci-Hub is seen by many as a way to protect science from the greed of academic publishers who impose very high prices on universities and their libraries for access to their publications. In the case of India, a ruling against Sci-Hub would be seen by many as a threat to the country’s interests.
The question the Indian authorities must now ask is whether to protect their scientists who use Sci-Hub or the interests of foreign publishers who have created a business model that treats knowledge (often funded by taxpayers) as private property and who profit by imposing abusive prices on its universities and research centers. In short, is there any link between scientific output and these publishers’ profits?
More and more universities and academic institutions, faced with the greed of these publishers, are leaning towards open-access models to disseminate their output. Several decades ago, in the field of public health, the Indian government’s decision to favor the use of generic medicines challenged Big Pharma. For a country like India, its courts’ decision over Sci-Hub will be critical, and, given the importance of science to the country’s competitiveness, it is far from given that they will automatically back the plaintiffs.