Academic Freedom, Copyright, Intellectual Freedom Issues, International issues, Professional Ethics, Technology

by Joyce Johnston

My previous posting explored the phenomenon of Sci-Hub, a site dedicated to providing free access to more than 50 million academic papers without regard to their ownership status or to copyright laws. This post looks at the legal issues involved, in contrast to the previous post’s articulation of the argument for open access.

In a public statement, the Association of American Publishers argues that 171 countries signed the Berne Convention to harmonize their copyright structures because those policies most closely balance the ownership rights of authors and publishers against students’ and scholars’ need for access to research.  Publishers are essential to conducting peer reviews, editing texts, maintaining archives and producing accurate, complete versions of published research. Sci-Hub, they say, thumbs its nose at all of these things. The lawsuit filed by Elsevier (Sci-Hub’s chief victim) in a New York court aims to defend intellectual property laws against what they see as the worst kind of electronic theft.

Publishers point to Sci-Hub as a corrupter of scholarly ethics. Apparently, many academics are colluding with founder Alexandra Elbakyan by volunteering the use of their legitimate login credentials.   She denies obtaining articles by direct hacking, (even though she has been charged with it in the lawsuit) but may have obtained them by phishing for legitimate credentials.

Another issue is that Sci-Hub often functions as an accessory to crime by scraping articles from its sister site, LibGen (Library Genesis.)  LibGen claims that it only downloads articles that appear on other fora—in other words, publications that have already been hijacked by somebody else—and thus is innocent of piracy.  Neither site comments on the fact that Sci-Hub also mysteriously acquires articles not on LibGen, then uploads them to LibGen after supplying them to the researcher who requested them.

Copyright advocates are increasingly frustrated by the legal system’s inability to close down internet pirates. Domain seizures, for instance, have failed miserably.  When a New York District Court took away Sci-Hub’s original address of, it metamorphosed to, then after a take-down order, to and It’s also available on the anonymous Telegram messaging app and on the Tor network, which conceals users’ locations and identities from surveillance of any kind. As a final blow, Elbakyan herself has no U. S. assets and reportedly lives in Russia, so collecting damages from her is effectively impossible, even though the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act claims international jurisdiction.

So what’s a publisher to do when it sees its entire business model threatened, along with the laws that underpin it?  In the short run, there’s always federal court, which is where Elsevier et al v. Sci-Hub et al will eventually be heard after numerous postponements of its pre-trial conference. In the long view, the ALA offers solutions laid out by Carrie Russell and Ed Sanchez in an article for College Research Libraries News. Libraries should take active steps to protect authentication processes for their online collections. More important, they urge library activism to transform national policy by making information access more equitable and sustainable.


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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