Sci-hub. Good for science, otherwise mostly harmless

Sci-hub is the piratebay of academic journal articles. Its service is mostly illegal because it collects paywalled articles and makes them publicly available online via an indexed search. This is copyright infringement. People love it. The coverage is incredible, many journals have over 98% of their articles covered.

Frustrated with a lack of access to scientific articles, Alexandra Elbakyan of Kazakhstan founded the Sci-hub repository as a 20-year-old graduate student. Her site subsequently provided more open access to scientific knowledge than anyone in the history of science. She was named a person of the year in 2016 by Nature; yes, that Nature of the mega-profit-publisher Springer Nature who promotes open access by charging a 10 grand APC.

Reminiscent of the RAA’s takedown of Napster in 2001, Elsevier took legal action against Sci-hub in 2015 starting in the U.S. and quickly moving to other countries. This international campaign has to do with copyright law being organized by country, making it very difficult to pursue Sci-hub which exists in a cyberspace of mirrors, and it provides something that is unquestionably in the public interest and a basic UN human right.

Although there are allegations of security breaches that could lead to identity theft or other hacking university servers, I am not aware of a single piece of evidence Sci-hub has done anything other than ‘steal’ academic publications. It is not a threat to sovereign nation states, it doesn’t encourage sociopathic behavior. It is a form of rebellion against the plague that for-profit publishing unleashed on science, and a way to promote open science. Of course Elsevier was not wrong in its legal claim of copyright infringement. Elsevier wants researchers to pay for their articles and its minions see Sci-hub as causing profit losses. But the evidence suggests this is nonsense. Elsevier is wasting its time, precious time that it could use to sponsor arms fairs, create journals and sell them to big pharma or try to patent online peer review and force journals to pay to use it.

First, lets look at who is downloading Sci-hub content. Figure 1 shows the top ten countries by total downloads in February of 2022, compared with their total populations. We can see that relative to their populations, the U.S. and France are home to the most downloads per capita as of the most recent data.

Figure 1. Sci-hub downloads by country, February, 2022.
Image adjusted from Owens (2022) with
addition of Wikipedia population data in millions.

Next, lets think carefully about how publishing subscriptions work through two typical scenarios of a researcher downloading from Sci-hub.

Scenario 1. A researcher in the Global South downloads articles from Sci-hub. We know this is good for science. In fact this is science, it is active dissemination of useful knowledge. Merton would be pleased. The first question is easy: Is this researcher getting something for free that they should be paying for? Yes, they are receiving illegal good, getting copyrighted material for free. The second question is also easy: Would this researcher pay for this article if Sci-hub did not exist? No, they are presumably working for a fraction of what a researcher earns at a Global North university and do not have a budget of $25-60 for each article they need. The university also cannot afford millions of U.S. dollars for an Elsevier subscription. The scholar either gets the article from Sci-hub or some other green open access source, or does not use the article. It is a small loss for any publisher when someone would use their article, but could not access it; because having a potential citation to one of their articles is better than nothing.

Scenario 2. A researcher in the Global North downloads articles from Sci-hub. This researcher has either direct or indirect access to every published article that exists. Many universities have subscriptions to articles that their researchers are most likely to need. When the university does not have a subscription, a process of inter-library loan will get them roughly any article they need. Its not fool proof, but within a margin of error, Global North researchers have legal access. Using Sci-hubY yes, this researcher is getting something for free that they should pay for, but, their university or a university in their library network already pays for access, so preventing them from downloading also does not lead to any new money in the hands of the publisher.

Shutting down Sci-hub will not lead to any increase in profits for publishing companies. Elsevier, in its tantrum would argue otherwise. When universities and their libraries finally started to turn on predatory publishing houses like Elsevier and cancelled contracts, profits declined. In this case the universities do have the money to pay for a subscription. However, Project Deal and the UC systems’ boycotts asked Elsevier to sign a more reasonable and less draconian version of subscription and Elsevier refused. That is on Elsevier. It has nothing to do with Sci-hub. Again, no money would change hands because of the boycott which has nothing to do with universities implicitly encouraging their students to download illegal content.

Let’s look at more evidence. Figure 2 shows Elsevier’s profits in recent years. Sci-hub was in full effect in the mid 2010s. Interestingly, profits kept growing. They grow, and grow, and grow until something else happens that has nothing to do with Sci-hub. The universities began to wake up from their nightmares, and realized that they were being abused by publishers like Elsevier. In 2019, they started boycotting and demanding that publishers sign collective contracts rather than pay case-by-case, and that they greatly reduce their fees. And only in 2019 does a year-over-year profit growth model suddenly reverse direction.

Figure 2. Publicly available investor information from RELX

Elsevier’s profits only started to decline after they got canceled. Sci-hub has been irrelevant because those who can’t afford it will not pay and those who can already subscribe or should have a subscription, certainly won’t pay for Sci-hub downloads because they already do via their libraries. That is except for Elsevier’s refusal to support science, which is causing their own self-inflicted profit loss. Sci-hub is good for science, its mostly harmless otherwise.