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What If Elsevier and Researchers Quit Playing Hide-and-Seek?

December 16, 2015

Copyright Lawsuits Won’t Stop People from Sharing Research

In principle, everyone in the world should have access to the same body of knowledge. The UN Declaration of Human Rights says that everyone deserves the right “to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”

The reality is a bit messier. Institutional subscriptions to academic databases don’t cover every article someone would ever need. When scholars and professors find a reference to an article that they don’t have access to, they’ll often turn to less orthodox approaches: asking for the paper on Twitter or Facebook, emailing a friend at another institution, or even asking the author directly. For a lot of people, research amounts to a patchwork of sources culled together through authorized and unauthorized methods.

Publishing giant Elsevier recently made headlines with its attempts to curb sharing of its papers. When Elsevier persuaded a court to order two websites taken down, they quickly reemerged at different URLs. The story demonstrates what anyone who uses the Internet already knows: copyright lawsuits only temporarily slow sharing. They don’t prevent it.

The Rise and Fall and Rise of Sci-Hub

In 2011, researcher Alexandra Elbakyan developed a method for bypassing paywalls to get to the research she needed. “When I was working on my research project, I found out that all research papers I needed for work were paywalled,” she said in an interview. “I was a student in Kazakhstan at the time and our university was not subscribed to anything.”

Elbakyan found a way to spoof universities’ IP addresses, getting access to the same resources that students and faculty at those universities can see. When word of Elbakyan’s hack got around, friends and colleagues began to ask her to find papers for them. She realized that helping everyone individually wasn’t sustainable, so she built a website—Sci-Hub—that anyone could use to retrieve paywalled research.

Needless to say, Sci-Hub got the attention of the academic publishing world. In June, Elsevier filed a copyright infringement lawsuit against both Sci-Hub and LibGen (Library Genesis), another repository for unauthorized sharing of research papers. On October 30, a New York judge granted an injunction against several web domains owned by Sci-Hub and LibGen.

Sci-Hub and LibGen have now moved to new domains, and Sci-Hub has set up a .onion address; this allows users to access the service anonymously through Tor. How quickly the sites have gotten back on their feet after the injunction underscores that these services can’t really be stopped. Elsevier can’t kill unauthorized sharing of its papers; at best, it can only make sharing incrementally less convenient.

Sharing Doesn’t Fix Closed

On the other hand, services like Sci-Hub only make sharing incrementally more convenient. They don’t fix the problems inherent to a closed publishing model.

A few months ago, the hashtag #icanhazpdf got a lot of media attention. The idea behind #icanhazpdf is simple: when someone finds a reference to an article they can’t access, they ask for it on Twitter. When someone with access sends over the PDF, the original poster deletes their tweet.

#icanhazpdf and Sci-Hub might be new, but the kind of informal sharing they represent has been around for as long as the Internet has existed. They haven’t changed the systemic disparities in who has access to research (it’s worth mentioning here that most of the traffic to LibGen and Sci-Hub comes from economically disadvantaged countries).

People without institutional access to academic databases probably have fewer friends with access—therefore, fewer people they can reach out to for help. Many people aren’t aware of sites like Sci-Hub, or aren’t willing to use them.

Reaching out to an author directly can be a mixed bag, too: many researchers are afraid to share their own work thanks to the prohibitive contracts they sign when they publish. What’s more, relying on the authors themselves makes their own personal prejudices a gating factor. Sadly, informal sharing of research isn’t immune to the inequalities that plague traditional publishing.

We Can Help Publishers Change

As long as the publishing industry relies on closed models, it will need to spend more and more time and legal fees fighting sharing, locked in a perpetual game of hide-and-seek. What if Elsevier and other large publishers poured less time and money into fighting each new research-sharing website, and more into addressing the disparities that prompt those workarounds in the first place?

There’s a bill in Congress called FASTR (S.779, H.R.1477) that would require that federally funded research be shared openly. FASTR has strong supporters in both parties, but in order for Congress to move forward with the bill, it needs to hear that open access matters to the public.

FASTR—and reforms like it—will lead publishers to migrate to business models that don’t rely on hiding research from the public. Tell your lawmakers that publicly funded research should be publicly shared.

Take ActionTell your lawmakers that open access is important to you.

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