Sci-Hub: Research Crusader or Copyright Criminal?

Academic Freedom, Copyright, Information Access, International issues, Professional Ethics, Technology

by Joyce Johnston
Purchasing a single article from major science publisher Elsevier costs $35.95.  At Springer, it’s even more–$39.95.  IEEE, the world’s top engineering publisher, weighs in at a mere $33.  But at Sci-Hub, they’re all completely, absolutely free.  And therein lies the problem, since they’re also completely, absolutely illegal.

Not that Kazakh founder Alexandra Elbakyan cares.  Through Sci-Hub, she has taken on the banner of freedom of information in science and technology, proudly preparing her own spreadsheet to show that Sci-Hub hosts 50 million papers and counting. Over the 6 months leading up to March 2016, Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents to users worldwide. According to its home page, Sci-Hub is “the first website in the world to provide mass & public access to research papers.”

From Elbakyan’s point of view, hers is a crusade for social justice. Journal paywalls, she reasons, are “an example of something that works in the reverse direction, making communication less open and efficient.”  Sci-Hub is the solution.  Although it falls short of her original dream of building software to help humans communicate directly, mind to mind, she feels that it is the next best thing.

To give her credit, Elbakyan has been willing to put herself on the line for her vision.  As the result of a preliminary injunction in a copyright lawsuit, Elsevier et al v. Sci-Hub et al,  Sci-Hub has already lost its original domain name of, now ironically owned by a for-profit journal publisher.  (It has, however, simply popped up elsewhere; I found it at, but it is also available through its IP-address,, or through the messaging app Telegram).

Elbakyan herself is now officially in hiding as a grad student at “a small, private university” pending a preliminary hearing scheduled for September.  Were she to lose the suit, she could potentially be liable for between $750 and $150,000 for each paper on her site. However, she sees herself not as a criminal, arguing instead that she is enacting the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It reads that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.” Separately, she could also be arrested at any time for hacking journal publishers’ sites.

She has the support of a group of prominent group of academicians and researchers who authored an open letter arguing that current academic publishing practices victimize the writers whose careers depend on publications in major journals and that Elbakyan’s actions are therefore ethically correct.  Further, 87.87% of almost 11,000 readers polled by Science magazine supported Elbakyan’s view that it is not wrong to download pirated papers.  The problem, of course, is that Sci-Hub is still totally illegal in the 171 (mostly western) nations that share copyright laws as participants in the Berne Convention. So the question remains:  Is Sci-Hub—and with it, the philosophy of complete open access—a social good or a criminal assault on free enterprise?

Please see my next posting at the end of this week: Sci-Hub as Criminal: The View from the Other Side.

Editor’s Note: ACRL/OITP have weighed in on the Sci-Hub controversy via a post by Carrie Russell and Ed Sanchez:


Joyce Johnston teaches at George Mason University and has been writing and speaking on digital intellectual property and virtual instruction for more than 20 years. As a non-librarian, but a proud member of the Virginia Association of School Librarians, she has provided updates on intellectual property at its annual conference for the past 10 years and serves on the Executive Committee for the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology (aka EdMedia).

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