There has been an explosive new development in how scientific research is read and distributed. It’s name is Sci-Hub.
Founded in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan (who was, at the time, a 22 year-old graduate student based in Kazakhstan), the site has seen a major uptick in the last year. In February 2016, 6M+ scientific papers were downloaded from Sci-Hub, including articles from major journals like Nature and Science, to more niche titles across many fields, by hundreds of thousands of researchers all across the globe . Simply by punching in a paper title or a DOI (document object identifier), which is a kind of ID number for scientific papers, researchers can get immediate, free access to 50M+ articles on the site.
Pissing Off the Big Guys
This is obviously piracy. And Elsevier, one of the largest academic journal publishers, is furious. In 2015, the company earned $1.1 billion in profits on $2.9 billion in revenue  and Sci-hub directly attacks their primary business model: subscription service it sells to academic organizations who pay to get access to its journal articles. Elsevier filed a lawsuit against Sci-Hub in 2015, claiming Sci-hub is causing irreparable injury to the organization and its publishing partners.
But while Elsevier sees Sci-Hub as a major threat, for many scientists and researchers, the site is a gift from the heavens, because they feel unfairly gouged by the pricing of academic publishing. Elsevier is able to boast a lucrative 37% profit margin because of the unusual (and many might call exploitative) business model of academic publishing:
- Scientists and academics submit their research findings to the most prestigious journal they can hope to land in, without getting any pay.
- The journal asks leading experts in that field to review papers for quality (this is called peer-review and these experts usually aren’t paid)
- Finally, the journal turns around and sells access to these articles back to scientists/academics via the organization-wide subscriptions at the academic institution where they work or study
Why Academics Are So Fed Up
Bigger institutions spend tens of thousands of dollars a year to subscribe to a broad range of important journals — all the University of California campuses combined spend $8.7M on Elsevier subscriptions annually — but smaller organizations or independent researchers must pick and choose and typically have major gaps. Individual articles might cost around $30, which adds up very quickly when a typical research paper might include citations to 50-200 articles.
For many academics, paying exorbitant costs for information they submitted and reviewed for free is simply too much to pay. And in fact over 16,000 researchers have signed The Cost of Knowledge boycott , which means they will not submit to or referee an Elsevier journal, signalling the immense frustration many researchers feel about the issue.
Why This is a Pivotal Moment
The academic journal Science recently published a survey of ten thousand readers, many of whom are presumably scientists or other people interested in this issue . While clearly not objective data, the results show that a majority of survey takers having used Sci-Hub, with a quarter indicating they use it weekly or daily.
What’s also interesting is that while the #1 reason for using Sci-Hub is not having access to the papers (50%), convenience was also an important factor. Not only does Sci-Hub grant access to nearly every paper on the planet, many find it easier to use than legitimate methods.
Despite being faced with a lawsuit, and having some of their domains taken down (.org and .io), the site continues to operate under other domains like Sci-Hub.cc, via the Dark Net via Tor, and is even sending PDF’s via the messaging app Telegram.
Elbakyan is obviously very smart and very motivated. To operate a site at this scale in a non-US/EU nation and keep a low enough profile not to get caught for five years and counting requires extreme skill, discretion, and persistence. Her blog makes it clear that she’s not even an activist in the general sense that she’s using Sci-Hub to “push the industry to change”. She literally just wants to make sure Sci-Hub or something like it exists forever.
“On the Internet, we obviously need websites like Sci-Hub where people can access and read research literature. The problem is, such websites oftenly cannot operate without interruptions, because current system does not allow it.
The system has to be changed so that websites like Sci-Hub can work without running into problems. Sci-Hub is a goal, changing the system is one of the methods to achieve it.”
Damn. I don’t know if I’m totally behind that message, but her stance is very clear and she is a force to be reckoned with.
The bottom line is that Sci-Hub is here to stay. The genie is out of the bottle and the more Elsevier and other publishers attack the site and Elbakayan, the more they are going to look like Big Oil, Big Tobacco or RIAA/MPAA — evil corporations just trying to suck every dollar out of the system. And beyond the public relations nightmare this creates, it’s also just a technological battle that is almost impossible to win.
What Happens Now
Look, I’m by-and-large a capitalist. Elsevier and other publishers are within their legal right to run their business the way they have been. And I’m not someone who subscribes to the idea that knowledge inherently should be free. I pay for Spotify, The New York Times (digital edition), Esquire magazine (print edition), Netflix, and Amazon Prime Video, and dozens of books both digital and print every year.
But the key thing is that these entities made it easier to buy those items than to pirate them.
Record companies faced enormous challenges when Napster and other file-sharing systems came along to break up the mountains of cash reaped from CD’s during the 90’s and 2000’s. And the truth is, the revenue never came back in terms of digital downloads or streaming (the industry’s total revenue has fallen 66% since 1999).
But guess what — welcome to Schumpter’s creative destruction . The world changes and you have to evolve or die. For decades, many have railed against the business model of the academic publishers and finally, the disruption has arrived. Yes, pirating papers is illegal. But it will be very very difficult to completely shut down Sci-Hub or one of its mirrors. This is the new reality and academic publishers are going to have to live with it.
The music industry adapted by making concerts and licensing a bigger focus. Newspapers like The Economist and The New York Times have sharpened their coverage and created content people were willing to pay for. HBO launched HBO GO. Netflix has a market cap of $42B.
In 1995, Forbes (back when it was a print magazine), wondered if Elsevier and academic publishing would be one of the first industries to be disrupted by the Internet. “Is the party over?” they asked, “it may be nearing its end. The Internet is closing in.” While their timing was off, their assessment of the underlying economics and individual incentives of the industry have not changed, and the technology has only made sharing easier.
Like for most newspapers, it might be time for academic publishers to face the music, cut back and realize that the era of massive revenues and amazing margins is over, and that leaner times are ahead. And to be perfectly honest, I don’t know what the answer is. But if the publishers willing to innovate and actually serve their customers and find new ways of creating value, there’s still hope. Crying “piracy is wrong” and trying to shut down the pirates however, is fruitless, wasteful effort.
There are going to be tough times ahead for academic publishers thanks to Sci-Hub. And that might actually be a great thing for scientists, researchers, and anyone who cares about the future of knowledge.