Over the past year or so, it’s been very interesting to see the ways in which various sectors and individuals within the scholarly communication ecosystem have responded to the growing number of entities that operate in either the gray areas of copyright (social networks like ResearchGate and Academia.edu, for example) or in outright defiance of copyright law, most notably Sci-Hub. What I’ve found most interesting of all has been the reception that Sci-Hub has received among my fellow librarians and open access advocates.

I’m not aware of anyone (other than Alexandra Elbakyan herself) who is trying to defend Sci-Hub on a strictly legal basis — to say, in other words, that Sci-Hub’s behavior is anything other than illegal. However, I have encountered many apologias for Sci-Hub on a moral/ethical basis.


Some of these have been more intellectually honest than others. On the less-honest end of the rationalization spectrum are those who shake their heads with a grin and a “those darn kids” roll of the eyes, but stop well short of actually condemning Sci-Hub’s behavior. This response is sometimes couched in giggling expressions of appreciation for Sci-Hub’s moxie, and very often those who respond in that mode then quickly try to change the subject from Sci-Hub’s behavior to larger problems in the scholarly-communication ecosystem that Sci-Hub purports to solve.

On the more-honest end of the spectrum — from those, in other words, who are interested in trying to deal with the moral/ethical implications of Sci-Hub’s manifestly illegal behavior, rather than wink at or sidestep them — the responses I’ve seen so far seem to fit into one (or more) of four categories of argument:

  1. Sci-Hub’s activity is neither illegal nor immoral. Again, I haven’t heard any responsible or informed member of the scholcomm community take this position, but it seems necessary to acknowledge its existence since it’s the one that Elbakyan herself has publicly taken. This stance is uncommon because it requires a truly comprehensive and bone-deep ignorance of the law.
  2. Sci-Hub’s activity is illegal, but not immoral. Those taking this stance tend to appeal to the legal concept of malum prohibitum, which means “bad (because) prohibited” — as distinct from malum in se, which means “bad in itself.” This line of argument basically says “sure, copyright infringement is technically illegal, but it’s not morally wrong because it doesn’t actually hurt anyone.” In this light, copyright infringement is seen less like stealing than like speeding: a speed limit of 55 mph isn’t there because there’s something morally wrong with driving 56 mph, but rather as a way of organizing traffic and hopefully preventing accidents. In a 55-mph zone, driving 56 mph is malum prohibitum but not malum in se. Laws against stealing, however, reflect not only a societal desire to preserve the social order, but also a common societal belief that taking something that doesn’t belong to you is simply not right. From this perspective, stealing someone’s car would be both malum prohibitum and malum in se, but breaching copyright is only malum prohibitum. (An unpacking of this argument would require a separate posting in itself, but here it should suffice to say that the idea that copyright infringement never does real harm to anyone is debatable, and it may also be worth pointing out that copyright infringement can be a felony.)
  3. A third position allows that Sci-Hub’s activities are both illegal and immoral, but excuses them on the basis of the odiousness of their targets. We might summarize this characterization as malum in se, sed… (“Bad in itself, but…”). This line of argument says “OK, infringement really can cause real damage to copyright holders, and therefore you can argue that it’s morally wrong. But if the only people being hurt are big commercial publishers like Elsevier and Wiley, then what Sci-Hub is doing isn’t really morally objectionable because Elsevier and Wiley are bad guys.” You might also call this the “Robin Hood” argument—sure, stealing is wrong, but if you’re robbing from the rich in order to give to the poor… Of course, one problem with this position is that robbing from toll-access publishers doesn’t mean just hurting the big commercial guys. Sci-Hub harms the non-profits and university presses as well.
  4. A fourth line of argument has emerged as well: that Sci-Hub’s activities are positively good (even if technically illegal) because they undermine an aspect of the social order that sorely needs to be undermined. By this light, the real criminal here isn’t Sci-Hub, but publishers and others who restrict access to content — or even copyright law itself. The more radical version of this argument holds that copyright itself should be abolished; the less radical version holds that copyright law isn’t a bad thing in principle, but over the years it has mutated into something that no longer serves the public good. A person who holds this view might say, “Look, the basic idea behind copyright is great, but over the years copyright protections have expanded to a really unreasonable degree. Everyone knows that we’re not going to be able to rein in those protections by appealing to Congress. The only way we’re going to reform copyright law is by basically blowing it up and starting over.”

One thing that’s interesting about those who seek to defend Sci-Hub on the basis of any of these arguments is how touchy they often get about acknowledging problems with Sci-Hub that have nothing to do with copyright infringement — notably, the threats posed to both campus and personal data security when institutional employees share (either knowingly or as the result of deception) their network credentials with an operation like Sci-Hub. I’ve discussed those particular threats already here in the Kitchen and won’t belabor them again, but I do think it’s unfortunate (if not surprising) that there is so little appetite for addressing them among my colleagues in the library realm. Some — mostly those who, I suspect, have never had to deal with breaches of sensitive or private personal data on their campuses — seem to see the raising of such concerns as fear-mongering.

Unfortunately, I have to confess that some of those refusing to discuss the problem are my fellow librarians.

The most extreme example of this position is exemplified by Elbakyan herself, who, completely confident in her ignorance and wholly unfazed by fact, claims that the credentials Sci-Hub has been collecting can’t be used for anything except accessing licensed content; this position (like her understanding of copyright law) would be merely hilarious if it weren’t so dangerous. The more common problem we face, though, is not denial that the problem exists, but rather a refusal to discuss it. Unfortunately, I have to confess that some of those refusing to discuss the problem are my fellow librarians. One colleague, a member of the teaching faculty at a liberal-arts college, reported to me that when she sent messages both to the college’s IT department and to the library about the fact that Sci-Hub was gathering faculty members’ network credentials and using them to download licensed content illegally, the IT folks freaked out and the librarians never responded. I wish I were more surprised, but the library world’s generally muted (and sometimes quietly supportive) response to Sci-Hub has been deeply troubling to me from the beginning.

One other thing that concerns me about this whole mess is that it shows how easily a rhetorical halo can be applied to any practice — no matter how manifestly illegal and arguably immoral it may be — as long as the person or organization engaging in it claims the mantle of open access, and no matter how poorly that mantle actually fits. Although Elbakyan herself, with her typical disregard for the meaning of words or the validity of factual claims, asserts that Sci-Hub is “the true solution for Open Access,” Sci-Hub’s model does not fit any of the definitions of OA currently competing for primacy in the scholcomm space. Yet it’s my friends and colleagues who are most heavily invested in OA advocacy that seem least willing to condemn Sci-Hub. (Most likely, I suppose, because they see themselves and Sci-Hub as fighting against a common enemy.)

And that, perhaps, sums up what I find most distressing about the rhetoric around Sci-Hub. Personally, I think there has never been a more urgent need for hardheaded critical thought than there is at this point in our political and economic history. Thinking critically means, among other things, making the effort to divorce oneself from easy binaries and tribalism — it means acknowledging that the enemy of one’s enemy is not necessarily one’s friend.

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson

Rick Anderson is Associate Dean for Collections and Scholarly Communication in the J. Willard Marriott Library at the University of Utah. He speaks and writes regularly on issues related to libraries, scholarly communication, and higher education, and has served as president of NASIG and of the Society for Scholarly Publishing.

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80 Thoughts on "Four Ways of Rationalizing Infringement: or, How to Defend a Pirate"

There is yet another argument in favour of Sci-Hub argument that you have not addressed, i.e., Sci-Hub is a moral force for good as it allows those without ready access to the fruits of human endeavour to gain such access, e.g., to information about life-saving drugs or medical techniques. Such beneficiaries include the poor, both in developed countries as well as those in developing countries. What is your answer to those who adopt this stance?

Wouldn’t that fall under category number 4 above (illegal, but a positive social good)? It’s also an argument that largely ignores the enormous efforts made to provide low-cost and no-cost access to the scholarly literature (INASP, eIFL, Research4Life, and the developing countries programs of individual publishers).

It is indeed a variation of 4, but the example you gave for 4 did not draw attention to the point I made, and is the one which is often argued. And I must disagree with your “enormous efforts” line – my impression is that the efforts are half hearted at best. In any case, efforts for developing countries do not address the issue of information poor resident in wealthier countries. But don’t get me wrong. I am opposed to Sci-Hub, which is clearly illegal. In my view, the problem lies with authors who foolishly and unthinkingly assign copyright to publishers rather than retaining copyright and giving the publisher a licence to reproduce.

To be fair to those behind these programs, “enormous efforts” is an apt description. But I agree with you that more could be (and should be done). To me the biggest problems are awareness (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2015/04/20/vital-link-discovery-access/) and basic infrastructure needs, as free access doesn’t matter so much if you don’t have a computer or a connection to the internet (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2015/05/21/guest-post-inasps-anne-powell-on-availability-does-not-equal-access/).

I’m also not sure that the copyright assignment makes much difference in this instance. Most publishers that leave copyright with the author require an exclusive license to publish, which puts them in much the same position (but without some of the benefits of the legal protections publishers can offer).

Re exclusive licences – the author should grant the publisher an exclusive licence to print publish, leaving the author, and the publisher, free to post the material online wherever either party wants (including perhaps an institutional repository or similar in the case of the author). Sorry I didn’t make myself clear first time. You might think publishers would refuse, but my experience is that they always agree to such terms.

Print publication may be irrelevant for an online-only journal. And while many (most) publishers grant the author rights to publicly post certain versions of their paper (author’s manuscript) at certain times (after an embargo), I don’t know of any that grant blanket rights to authors to immediately post the version of record, other than those publishing under an open access model.

Hi, Charles —

I wouldn’t say that the argument you propose here is an additional argument or even a variant on Rationalization #4, but just an example or expression of it. And I guess my response to someone putting forward that argument would be “Helping the poor is wonderful, but I think those who give their own property to the poor are in a much stronger moral position than those who give other peoples’.” That’s just me, though.

I agree. Scholarly authors should not hand the fruits of their work to publishers if those authors are then going to moan (or worse, break the law) when those publishers do things that thee authors don’t like. They should retain the copyright and are then free to distribute in accordance with their own preferences.

What is the business model of Sci-Hub? Even not paying for content, it still costs money to run a webserver, etc. Does it live on advertising? Donations? Deep-pocket support?

Rick, thanks for the excellent post. I’d like to raise a couple of points: First, there is a burgeoning literature on the relationship between human rights and copyright that is relevant to this discussion. Legal scholars such as Lawrence Helfer and Peter Yu and Saleh Al-Sharieh have proposed, broadly speaking, that international human rights law should shape the norms and aims of copyright law. That is not to legitimize Sci-Hub, which is not about Open Access at all but rather an egregious act of piracy. Still, the evolving relationship between human rights law and copyright law is an important development. Second, I want to put in a plug for librarians at Georgetown University, where I am the press director and a member of the Scholarly Communication Committee. They have been firm and clear, publicly and privately, regarding Sci-Hub’s rampant abuses and the security threat it represents on campuses. May their tribe increase.

Thanks for your comments, Richard. I agree that the evolving relationship between international human-rights law and copyright will be interesting to watch–not least because the development of real international copyright law will itself be very interesting to see (if it ever happens).

You also raise an important point about librarians and Sci-Hub. You’re absolutely right that there are librarians doing good work in helping faculty understand Sci-Hub’s moral and practical dangers. My comment about “the library world’s generally muted (and sometimes quietly supportive) response to Sci-Hub” shouldn’t by any means be taken as a blanket criticism of all my library colleagues.

Richard, that is not a problem of OA but a general one, namely a problem of inequality. To publish in elite journals (incl. sometimes paying page charges or colour figures) usually presupposes the acquisition of hundreds thousand even millions of $ of funding budgets.

Ivy Anderson analyse the problem much shorter and more precise in a comment to a Science article on SiHub: “… the core problem is the persistence of a friction-based business model in a network environment that is essentially frictionless. Human factors research tells us that when users keep making the same mistake, it isn’t a mistake – it’s the system that needs to change. Flip the business model to open access, and the Sci-Hub problem goes away – it becomes unnecessary on the one hand and legitimate on the other.”, http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/whos-downloading-pirated-papers-everyone#comment-2648543579

Have you thought through your assumption that open access is open! OA is only open to those who can afford to pay to publish so it is no access to those who cannot! Those who decide to steal will continue to do so but that does not make them any less a thief. It is not the system it is the criminals who are distorting it and that is the problem!

Harvey, you’re describing only one OA model among many. A lot of content is made available on an OA basis without the author having to pay anything.

Authors who can’t pay to publish OA papers can still access OA papers regardless. So yeah *access* is open to everyone, isn’t it then.

Ivy is right, of course, about Sci-Hub representing a much more convenient access model, and that if you do away with all of the friction in the conventional model you would obviate the benefits that Sci-Hub offers. One way of doing that would be to make everything OA. The problem is how to make everything OA in a way that protects the rights of everyone involved in the scholarly-communication ecosystem, that doesn’t introduce costs and downsides that are disproportionate to the benefits and upsides, and that is economically sustainable in the long run. If these problems weren’t so intractable, I think we’d have universal OA already.

Rick, that is what economic bargaining is all about. Now buyers (libraries, funders) “discover” their economic power (late enough) and want to see some services for their money. And if they are successful, some companies have to learn that the time of extraordinary profit margins is over. Insofar the Max Planck Society is fully correct: their is enough money in system to cover OA and to achieve still reasonable profit margins. The market cannot be a one-way street.

Rick, thank you very much for the comprehensive and clear overview of this issue. I am at a loss at understanding positions in support [to WHATEVER degree] of SciHub, especially coming from anyone involved in the activities of Publishing (whether print, electronic, sold or OA, etc.). Unauthorized use or dissemination of someone else’s property is theft, period… As to dissemination to those with lesser or no means around the World… for those of us having worked at solutions, it has been with much effort, very substantial internal and external obstacles, etc. as well as some modicum of success…

Perhaps Alexandra meant to imply that the credentials *aren’t* used by Sci-Hub for any purpose besides access to paywalled content; not that they *can’t* possibly be used for other purposes. Nuance tends to get lost in translation easily.

There haven’t been any reports of Sci-Hub compromising anything but paywalls so far, so it’s a bit dishonest to portray it as a security threat in any other sense than that for now.

Likewise, has it yet been demonstrated how (and how much) Sci-Hub is hurting publishers? Something like publishers experiencing a steady decline of revenue since 2011 when Sci-Hub/LibGen started operating?

It’s rhetorical halos galore on both sides of the Sci-Hub debate really…

Here’s a direct quote from Elbakyan, taken from the public presentation to which I linked in my piece:

Well, first of all I doubt that it’s possible to gain access to all the information that is listed in the post on the Scholarly Kitchen. As a rule, these logins and passwords can only be used for access to the proxy server through which you can download articles, whereas for access to other things, such as email, the login and password won’t work.

Elbakyan herself clearly refutes your suggestion here, Sasa — and just as clearly demonstrates her deep ignorance of how network authentication works on many (if not most) campuses.

That’s a translation of a direct quote, god knows how accurate, so until we have a native speaker here to confirm it’s flimsy evidence.

Anyway though, if she’s so deeply ignorant about how things work how’d she manage to set up Sci-Hub at all?

That’s a translation of a direct quote, god knows how accurate, so until we have a native speaker here to confirm it’s flimsy evidence.

Fair enough. If and when you can provide evidence that the translation is inaccurate I’ll be happy to entertain it. In the meantime, since I’m not aware that Elbakyan or anyone else has challenged the translation (and since the ignorance expressed in her comments, as translated, is of a piece with other, similarly ill-informed things she’s said about the scholarly-communication ecosystem) I see no reason not to assume that the translation is accurate.

Anyway though, if she’s so deeply ignorant about how things work how’d she manage to set up Sci-Hub at all?

Because setting up Sci-Hub doesn’t require a knowledge of those things of which she’s most demonstrably ignorant: copyright law, business law, the nature of non-profit organizations, and the intricacies of the scholarly-communication ecosystem. Those are things that you need to understand in order to behave responsibly in the scholcomm realm — but they’re not things you need to understand in order to set up a massive piracy scheme.

What about network authentication, though? Is knowledge of it required to set up Sci-Hub?

Any figures on how much this massive piracy scheme is hurting publishers?

What about network authentication, though? Is knowledge of it required to set up Sci-Hub?

Beyond knowing what network authentication is? No. (And that knowledge is had by every freshman on every college campus.)

Any figures on how much this massive piracy scheme is hurting publishers?

Eh, sort of — see here, here, and here, for example. But the question at issue in my piece isn’t whether or not Sci-Hub is having a huge economic impact. It’s about how people attempt to rationalize Sci-Hub’s behavior in legal and moral terms. There are lots of illegal and immoral things one can do that don’t have a major economic impact.

Rick, I think this is an interesting article that raises some good points but has some serious issues. You are clearly biased towards the publishers.

You completely ignore the point about publishers double/triple dipping as a profit driving mechanism (1- authors pay for the articles and often act as copy editors to boot, 2- readers pay for access, 3, journals use authors as reviewers without compensation). Most of this is public money and more accountability of publishers is required. To me this is a key point that you don’t address and from my experience also drives many people to use Sci-Hub, as a way to protest against such commercial practices, which the community is finding it very difficult to address. Researchers must publish (and to the “best” journals possible) to progress their career and engage in this practices- you don’t need to agree with it, but there is no accepted alternative” (for promotion etc), particularly for early/mid career researchers who are vulnerable (and the “best” journals set the conditions- no early/mid career author would reject a nature/science paper because they wont sign their rights away- career suicide).

Furthermore, you cast a moral judgement on this activity (“no matter how manifestly illegal and arguably immoral it may be”), which it neither a clear or objective assessment- while claiming that a clear and objective judgment should be rendered. The hypocrisy is stark.

I find this tone typical of publishers, without addressing the fact they created the conditions that led to this problem (and are desperately trying to hold onto to keep profits high- reminiscent of the music industry arguing about file sharing hurting them despite clear evidence to the contrary- but they have adapted and improved access/costs for all).

If you want to talk about Sci-Hub clearly and rationally you first need to admit that the publishing industry has/is a problem. All Sci-hub has done is bring a practice from behind closed doors mainstream. To ignore this is to deny there was a problem in the first place, and you will never be part of the solution otherwise.

Thank you for your article, which is a great way to start a more informed, clear discussion and raises many excellent points for further thought.

(N.B. As an early career researcher I’m not brave enough to put my name to this, as my career will suffer as the establishment is unlikely to agree with my opinion.)

Hi, Long Time Reader —

Thanks for your thoughtful comments and the kind words about the piece.

To respond to a couple of points: I don’t think there’s any hypocrisy in pointing out that Sci-Hub’s practices are “manifestly illegal” (this is simply a factual observation not disputed by anyone except Elbakyan) or that they are “arguably immoral” (since this is only to point out that a moral argument against Sci-Hub can be made).

You suggest that it’s not possible to “talk clearly about Sci-Hub clearly and rationally” without first admitting “that the publishing industry has/is a problem.” I agree that the publishing industry has numerous problems, but no essay can be about everything. This one is about some of the ways in which people try to rationalize the behavior of Sci-Hub. I made reference (sometimes obliquely, sometimes directly) to various problems that exist in the publishing world, but those are not the focus of this particular piece. I’ve addressed some of them in other SK postings, though, such as here, here, here, here, and here.

Thanks again for your comments.

Who are these monolithic “publishers” of whom you speak? Are there challenges the industry faces? Certainly. But there’s a huge difference in how those are–or can be–addressed by the for-profit giants that dominate some aspects of STEM journal publishing and the not-for-profit university presses, many of whom work in HSS fields, and service-focused library publishers who make a broad range of content available on behalf of their campus’s students and faculty. In my opinion, painting with such a broad brush doesn’t help move the conversation along. My question: do you mean to take aim at the for-profits? Or are you lumping us all into the same bucket? If the former, I’d request that you (and others) who do so be a bit more precise. If the latter, then I think that’s grossly unfair, as content, funding streams, and scale all dictate that different types of publishers must rely on different approaches to addressing the challenges facing the scholarly communications ecosystem.

P.S. Excellent post, Rick. Thank you.

I think I observed another way of defending piracy at this week’s UKSG conference — namely, sitting on your hands and saying nothing. When an audience consisting primarily of librarians was asked whether they were concerned about Sci-Hub or trying to stop it at their institutions, nary a hand went up.

I’m curious what you believe I as a librarian can do to stop Sci-Hub on my campus? I provide educational sessions on it and explain why it is self defeating and fails to address a sustainable solution to the issue it’s trying to solve among its other drawbacks. But that isn’t going to stop it. I don’t control the Russian courts who could enforce copyright judgements against it. Seriously, why are you surprised librarians aren’t raising their hands? Do you think we are miracle workers? I kind of like that. It’s just not realistic as you know.

This not an argument for or against Sci-Hub, but an observation. Too many authors limit their reading to the free abstracts of related papers. As a result, not only is their knowledge shallow, but their research lacks authority as it is not adequately contrasted with other people’s research details. Note that the bad practice is independent from the type of publication, but lack of OA encourages it. The more quality papers are found in non OA journals, the greater the negative impact of such practice would be. Extending free access to the figures of a paper, OA or not, would reduce the problem.

I don’t think it makes a lot of sense to discuss the ethics of illegal up- and downloading of copyright-protected content. Either way it will continue to happen even if content is being protected by means of new (and most likely user un-friendly) technology. With the actual needs of those illegally downloading in mind we need to come up with more innovative solutions to the problem. After all the music and movie industry managed to do just that.

I’m not sure the music and movie industries have entirely solved the problem of illegal downloads. And the big problem with the comparison is that their solution is largely a switch to the subscription model (Spotify, Netflix) which is already in place for journal access.

not across different publisher platforms though, scihub provides just that. for an academic it might just be more convenient to use the platform to save time, even if he/she would be able to legally access the same content via other more cumbersome means

for an academic it might just be more convenient to use the platform to save time, even if he/she would be able to legally access the same content via other more cumbersome means

Agreed — relative ease of use is a major selling point for Sci-Hub. Of course, it’s also a lot easier to walk into a store and walk out again with whatever you want than it is to wait in line at the cashier (even if you have the money in your pocket to pay). On the one hand, this is beside the point of my posting. On the other hand, this really is a major issue both for publishers and for libraries. I can’t think of an easy way for either of them to overcome it, though — some of the friction we encounter when dealing in an honest and legal way with content may arise from crappy delivery systems, but some of it may represent an unavoidable cost of doing business in an honest and legal way.

(Making everything OA would move us in the direction of overcoming this friction, as noted above, but also as noted above, making everything OA is a difficult and complex proposition.)

well, using spotify/netflix certainly is a much more convenient (and legal) way of accessing content than to spend hours and disk space illegally downloading music/movies

I’ve been a professional music critic for 27 years now, and during that time I’ve worked closely with lots of people in the music business. With the rise of Napster, I watched many of them lose their jobs as their labels shut down. Most of the labels that went out of business were not the big ones like Sony, Warner, Deutsche Grammophon, etc. (though most of those are now a mere shadow of their former selves). The labels that went out of business were mostly small and medium-sized independents, and they haven’t come back.

The economics of the music industry have certainly changed since then, and I’m not going to defend the practices of labels that exploited and abused their artists. But I can testify from firsthand knowledge that the idea that the music industry has simply “come up with innovative solutions” to the problem of wholesale piracy, and thereby continued to thrive, is false.

There are some interesting parallels here to the plight of nonprofit publishers as well.

in my opinion the business strategy of large publishers elsevier, springer etc is a much more important factor regarding the disappearance of smaller (STM) publishers or libraries cancelling subscriptions to their journals that is

Could be. I’m not making any claims that Sci-Hub has driven any publishers out of business (yet). The issues I’m addressing in this post are not economic ones, but legal/moral ones (and also issues of network security).

Rick, I presume you will be writing another piece soon on how certain large scholarly publishers charge for access to articles for which the author paid OA fees so they could be read for free?

I usually select my own topics, thanks, but that does sound like an interesting one. If you’re aware of specific examples of this happening and would be interested in doing the investigative work and coming up with a guest posting, please contact me at rick.anderson@utah.edu. I’d be happy to help you put together a proposal to our EIC.

Hi, Karen —

You might be interested to know that I’ve been communicating with someone who is getting ready to do a study of this problem. It will be very interesting to see what more rigorous and systematic examination turns up.

I can’t speak to the other examples Prof. Mounce discusses, but regarding his OUP-related posts, readers should be aware that OUP undertook a major platform upgrade/migration earlier this year that did not go as smoothly as anyone would have hoped. Those problems have, I believe, been fully resolved as of this month. In this context, to insinuate that OUP is seeking to profit by putting APC’d OA articles behind their paywall is a little over the top.

A couple points. First, I don’t understand why librarians should be “helping faculty understand Sci-Hub’s moral and practical dangers.” Just as we should not be interfering in an author’s decision where to publish, or their decision to post a possibly unauthorized copy of an article in ResearchGate, we should not take it on as our business if they use SciHub (except in the broader context of library-led copyright education, which presumably is about the law and not morality). If an author shares their credential with SciHub (the “practical” danger), that is the campus IT security officer’s concern. If a publisher shuts down access to the campus because of SciHub downloading, then the library deals with that just as we deal with steady stream of other instances of “excessive downloading,” which of course includes educating the individual (if there was one involved) about the terms of our license. It is not support or endorsement of SciHub for us to not be campaigning on our campuses against its use. (In any event, I would wager that any such campaigning would only serve to spread the word and increase SciHub usage, given what studies have shown about how researchers feel about the morality of using SciHub.)

Secondly, I don’t think librarians should ignore the impact SciHub and ResearchGate have on the value of our subscriptions. They are eroding it. That fact is completely independent of how we feel about either of those platforms, or how active we are in educating people about copyright. Funding for library collections *always* falls short of needs. At any given point–past, present and future–it is the librarian’s responsibility to our parent institutions, as stewards of the information subsidy for our communities, to take into account all available relevant information (in this case what alternative access there is) when making our purchasing decisions.

Hi, Kristin —

Apart from the moral and ethical issues around using Sci-Hub, I think the single most important thing that librarians should be helping faculty understand is the serious implications of sharing their network credentials. Unfortunately, it’s not only an IT issue if faculty facilitate piracy — on most campuses (certainly all of those where I’ve worked) the library is signatory to content licenses, and those invariably place the library under contractual obligation to take “reasonable measures” to ensure that unauthorized users won’t access the licensed content. At the very least, it seems to me that this means librarians need to do what they can to get the word to faculty that sharing their access credentials puts the campus at risk of losing access to that content — not to mention all of the other risks entailed by giving a potentially unlimited number of unauthorized users access to everything else that their network credentials unlock.

Librarians have a role in educating their users in copyright – how to protect one’s own copyright and why infringing copyright is both unethical and unlawful.

What might be more useful than clutching our pearls over people, even librarians, defending Sci Hub would be to find out why people affiliated with universities are going there. “Who’s downloading pirated papers” clearly showed that in the US the highest areas of use were in areas with major universities. Why are people going to Sci Hub when legal copies may well be available at their institutions? It would not surprise me if the answer turned out that it was easier than using our poorly integrated systems. As I’ve said before, our discovery to delivery tools are stitched together with all the finesse of a coroner closing a Y incision.

Hi, Collete —

I couldn’t agree with you more about the akwardness and clunkiness of our existing access systems, and I think that’s exactly why there’s no mystery at all as to why people use Sci-Hub: for those without legal access it’s a free and easy way to get it, and for those with legal access it’s an easier way to get it. So the “why” questions, I think, are pretty well understood. The questions we’re discussing here are different ones.

I agree 100% and as noted above, there’s a broad community effort going on with publishers, librarians, university IT folks, NISO and others to create standards and build infrastructure to streamline the authentication process:
If you are interested in participating, see here:

Are we moral? Before Sci-hub, science developed by $2 thefts from the libraries of rich universities and institutes where we had friends and colleagues. By asking them we made them criminals. Now only Alexandra is a thief.

I think a major reason why #2 (SciHub is illegal but not immoral) may resonate with people is that they have not seen convincing evidence that SciHub has actually harmed anyone. If you see the dissemination of research as a good thing, the calculus thus simplifies pretty easily: there is evidence that SciHub has accomplished a good (downloads of articles), and there is no evidence SciHub has caused any harm.

Hi, Sean —

You may well be right about that. Of course, if Sci-Hub is, in fact, causing significant material harm, how would most people be able to tell — what would it look like to outside observers? When Enron Corporation executives embezzled millions of dollars from their employees’ pension funds, no one saw the effects until the damage had long been done. (Attention, Metaphor Trolls: I’m not saying that copyright piracy is the same thing as embezzlement; I’m pointing out that the damage done by thievery may not become obvious for a long time, even when the damage is significant.)

This is a problem publishers (and other businesses) often face in these situations, the impossible task of being asked to prove a negative. We see massive downloading from Sci-Hub in regions that aren’t currently customers (Russia, Iran, Indonesia) and there certainly appears to be opportunity cost, but that’s lost potential, rather than lost current business. Although here, in the case of Sci-Hub, you have large consortia in Asia, South America and Europe canceling or negotiating hard bargains on their subscription deals and having researchers and even officials stating that they’ll be fine because they can use Sci-Hub and won’t lose anything by not paying. Which seems a pretty clear impact on business to me.

Unless you are a professional or paying thousands of dollars a year (as a student or an independent scholar) access to research

I, like many, believe access to source material instead of press accounts is vital to an educated Democracy. Additionally almost 100% academic research published receives federal govt subsidy within the United States. Yet the cost to access the research is orders of magnitude higher than checking out a book from a public library (or frankly renting textbooks from Amazon.com). These two issues have created a problem that the academic industry had no urgency in addressing. The failure to deal with this issue is what has led to activism.

Your discussion of the moral issues with Sci-Hub is very relevant, but not placed in the proper context. The music industry and even Enron were cited here. But in of these recurve the level of public support of our academic institutions. The paywall that is out of reach of even mostly upper middle class people like much less the working class or truly poor that also pay to support the research is horrible. .

To take the moral issues of the response and barely address the moral failing they are responding to is what’s missing here. Like riots and Civil Disobedience are responses to the failure of government on certain society — there can be a huge moral difference between activism and response to a moral failing on the part of institutions. However, it was the failure of the community that is indeed the one that must be addressed above all.

I would obviously condemn the riots over civil disobedience — but I am not sure outside the hacking done by SciHub there is much other than CD going on here.

Can you provide a source for the claim that 100% of published research receives government subsidy? Because I know an awful lot of unfunded researchers who would love to get in on that.

Hi, Kevin —

I’m not sure there’s only a single “proper context” for discussing the moral dimensions of Sci-Hub. To me, the really knotty and difficult moral/ethical/philosophical issue underlying your comment here (if I’m reading it correctly) is the unspoken assumption that it’s immoral for there to be inequality of access to scholarly information. I’m not rejecting that proposition, but I think it needs to be examined rather than simply assumed. Are we saying that there must not be any inequality of access (which would mean that no one should ever have to pay anything for access to scholarship)? Or are we saying that there’s too much inequality in the current system (in which case the next question would be: how much is too much?)?

I’m not sure whether you would classify this as #2 or #4 (though I’m also not sure that there’s an important distinction there), but:

I finished my PhD (hooray!) and therefore lost my university access while on the job market (boo!), and learned that there is no way for me to access articles without paying individually. I believe one possible workaround is to physically travel to a nearby public university and access articles there, but this is a non-trivial burden as I try to revise my papers while working full time.

One of my papers is now in the revise and resubmit stage, and I have identified about a dozen articles I need to read. Surely at least a few of those will then prompt me to read additional articles. Purchasing them individually would easily be hundreds of dollars, with no clear end in sight.

Music publishers responded to the ease of “pirating” music by eventually making it so easy to access music legally that people were glad to pay for it. I now pay $10/month to access the vast majority of music available anywhere. But as a non-academic I can’t pay $20, $50, or $100 a month for a subscription to most journals.

(And yes, there was plenty of upheaval in the music industry, but at some point the industry realized that continuing to push everyone to illegal methods of obtaining music was even worse than the solutions they found.)

What social or moral aim is served by there being no reasonable and legal way for me to access articles as I revise and resubmit my own work to make it available?

Hi, Gray —

You’re raising good and important issues. In response to your question:

What social or moral aim is served by there being no reasonable and legal way for me to access articles as I revise and resubmit my own work to make it available?

I would suggest that you’re posing this question in an unnecessarily tendentious way. Another way of asking it would be like this: “What social or moral aim is served by a system that requires people to pay for access to scholarship?”

And I guess one possible answer would be to point out that the documents to which you want access are the products of other peoples’ work — not only the authors (who are usually paid for their work by colleges and universities), but also the publishers who invest in the final product to which you want access. I think you’re mistaken to say that there’s no “reasonable and legal way” to access those papers, at least in most cases. In many cases, pre-publication versions of the papers you want are freely available in repositories, or can be gotten directly from the authors. But if you want the final versions, to which value has been added by other people, it doesn’t seem completely unreasonable to me that there should be a cost involved. (How high the cost should be is a separate question, of course.)

I fully agree that it’s not “completely unreasonable . . . that there should be a cost involved.”

The main issue I raised is that the cost is so absurdly high, and so difficult for me to pay, that it very much puts a damper on the progress of scholarship. For example, one paper that cites my methodology is available for $28. It’s 8 pages long. There is no working paper or preprint that I can find [though as an aside: If you start from the premise that the publisher has added a huge amount of value, why would I substitute a preprint version instead?].

But you see why I was wary even to engage on this: you somehow leaped from that to talking about how I clearly want something for nothing. I don’t.

If publishers want to continue to extract payment for the value they are adding, they need to find a way to do so that does not mean paying a high price for each article individually. Failing to do so absolutely puts a damper on scholarship and has huge negative effects for society, and no amount of moralizing about the incredible value publishers are adding will mitigate that impact.

Gray, I never accused you of wanting something for nothing. I responded directly to your question –why there should be “no reasonable and legal way” for you to access needed scholarship — by suggesting (though clearly not explicitly enough) that there is a reasonable and legal way for you to access it: by paying for it, where legal free copies aren’t available (which they often, though certainly not always, are).

But it sounds like your real concern is the price itself — you’re suggesting that the cost of access to scholarship is too high. And in many cases, I think you’re right. I wouldn’t suggest (and haven’t, in fact quite the contrary) that publishers’ prices are always reasonable and appropriate. So if your real question is not “what social or moral aim is served by there being no reasonable and legal way for me to access articles?” but rather “what social or moral aim is served by publishers overcharging for articles?”, then my answer is “None. I don’t support publishers overcharging for articles.” But to bring us back to the point of my posting, Sci-Hub is not about helping people get around overly high article costs. It’s about helping people get around any article costs whatsoever, and it’s explicitly built on the assumption that no one should ever have to pay any amount of money for access to scholarship. (To be extra clear here and hopefully avoid another misrepresentation on Twitter: I’m not saying that’s your position; I’m saying it’s Elbakyan’s. More importantly, Elbakyan says that it’s Elbakyan’s.)

That is explicitly not my position. I agree that works of scholarship provide value and I am willing to pay a reasonable price for that.

What I am saying is that the price absolutely matters, though I guess I see this as a self-evident point (does this come with being an economist?) and akin to saying that the quantity of works consumed matters. More fundamentally, the market for these scholarly works is completely broken, with the result that I can’t access anything at remotely reasonable prices . Because I cannot affiliate with a library that can obtain all of these journal subscriptions at bulk rates, I am left having to negotiate for each individual article. This quickly breaks down. The price they have to offer for per-article viewing is untenable, and even if they were to lower it significantly they would still be excluding many unaffiliated researchers, who do not want to pay a separate price for every single article they read.

What I am saying is that the unwillingness of journals to address this market failure is purely self-serving. It does not further any social good or originate from a moral basis. And in fact we have seen from other markets that this failure can be addressed, through something like what DeepDyve is attempting (and has been done by iTunes, Amazon Music, Google Play, etc. in the music sphere, to give one example industry).

I argue that the stubborn determination by many publishers not to engage with the users who could be served with such a model has eroded the moral argument against accessing articles on sci-hub.

I agree that works of scholarship provide value and I am willing to pay a reasonable price for that.

Then it sounds like you and I are in agreement, and your dispute is with Elbakyan, not with me.

What I am saying is that the price absolutely matters, though I guess I see this as a self-evident point

Couldn’t agree more. Price matters very much, and this is indeed a self-evident point.

I argue that the stubborn determination by many publishers not to engage with the users who could be served with such a model has eroded the moral argument against accessing articles on sci-hub.

Here you and I disagree, but I can understand why you feel that way.

I think you’re in a tough situation, although you’re something of an edge case. There aren’t a lot of customers out there for publishers stuck where you are, so you have fallen into the cracks. Are you the sole author on the papers you’re completing? Where I’ve known people who have graduated but not yet moved on to a postdoc/job, most have had the support of their advisor to help them maintain library access.

Pay per view (PPV) prices are generally based less on what’s reasonable, and more on the idea that they need to be high enough to prevent libraries from canceling subscriptions. If it’s cheaper to just buy individual papers, the need for the guaranteed revenue of a subscription goes away. To be fair though, the market is limited. I’ve heard anecdotally from several publishers that when they cut their PPV prices in half, or even by 2/3, sales did not change in the slightest.

One way that many publishers have attempted to serve this (seemingly limited) market is through Deep Dyve (https://www.deepdyve.com/). Have you tried it? It provides at least limited access to papers for a much lower fee than regular pay per view and may be worth a shot.

Thanks for the suggestion of DeepDyve. Unfortunately, the coverage in my corner of the social sciences is so pitiful as to make it close to useless.

As for me being an edge case: I think this is an excellent example of academic myopia. Let’s look at the major classes of people who might use sci-hub:

1) Researchers at institutions that don’t subscribe to many journals (especially outside of developed nations)
2) Researchers at institutions that don’t subscribe to the particular journal they need
3) Researchers unaffiliated with institutions

I imagine that (1) is huge, but I haven’t been addressing it here. And while I imagine (2) is a growing category, I think that academics consistently underestimate the number of people with advanced degrees who are not affiliated with institutions. This includes those in between affiliations, people working in the private sector, and people doing research in their spare time. In the social sciences, this encompasses a lot of people.

As you mention, you’ve known of plenty of people in similar situations who have begged for continued access through their advisors or coauthors. Is this really better than providing a legal, reasonably priced means for them to access journals? Are the producers of these scholarly works better off because people borrowed logins or begged for articles to be emailed rather than paying to access them through a subscription service like an expanded version of DeepDyve?

Sorry to hear the DeepDyve isn’t up to snuff in your area of study. The argument you make is a very convincing one, in fact, it’s the same argument that DeepDyve have been making since their inception in 2010. The notion is that there’s this huge, untapped market out there of people who want to read the scholarly literature and are willing to pay to do so, but are not being served by the current system. In seven years of practice though, this market has yet to materialize. From all that I’ve spoken to, usage and revenues from this market are miniscule at best. As noted above, when you drop your PPV prices drastically down, you still don’t see a big uptick in purchases of individual articles. Many journals have stopped selling individual subscriptions (much cheaper than institutional subs meant to serve thousands of readers) because there is no demand for them. I work with several top journals that still sell inexpensive individual subs, and each sells fewer than 10 annually. Most individuals getting the journals do so as a benefit of society membership, which is also usually a lot cheaper than a subscription, but to be fair, we see a lot of society members opting out of receiving the journal because they don’t want print copies and they already receive access through their library.

As for your category number 1, there are a number of efforts to reach developing countries and offer low or no cost access (INASP, eIFL, Research4Life, and programs from individual publishers). The increase in consortia sales is greatly helping increase access in many countries, providing access to large groups (often every institution in a country) for a very low price. And if you look at Sci-Hub traffic, the majority is coming from nations like Russia and Iran, which for economic and political reasons don’t qualify for the developing country programs, but there’s also been no indication that there’s any desire on those nation’s parts to pay for content, no matter how little is charged.

So where publishers participate in DeepDyve, it’s to try to serve the very small market that we’re failing to reach, but there’s very little (if any) money to be made from it. Other efforts include JSTOR’s Register and Read (http://about.jstor.org/rr) and many journals make articles freely available to all after an embargo period (which is becoming increasingly mandated through funding agency regulations). Like you, I’d love to see these programs expanded and more content added, but I’m skeptical as to whether there’s a huge market for them.

Unfortunately, Gary’s comments are accurate – while we work with many publishers, our collection is still incomplete, so for users looking for a particular journal(s), if we do not have that content, well then our service will not be sufficient. Having stated that, DeepDyve has grown quite substantially over the years and proven to be one of the industry’s few profitable, self-sustaining ’startups’ that has delivered millions of dollars in royalties to our partners with zero evidence of any cannibalization, be it PPV or subscription. And as we’ve added more partners and more content, our profits have expanded even more quickly as we see greater engagement and retention – the analogy would be Spotify being interesting with some of the major labels, but quite compelling once it had everyone. The difference of course is that DeepDyve is targeting a completely different market than our partners, offering a no-risk model to: 1) generate additional income; 2) serve the mission of dissemination; and 3) offer a legal, industry-friendly alternative to Sci-Hub and other social sharing networks, which I would consider a strategic imperative.

Bill, just to be clear — do you work for DeepDyve? (I’m trying to be clear about who the “we” is in your comment.)

Sorry, I should have stated in my comment that I am the CEO of DeepDyve and a long-time reader of SK. Thanks!

Information by it’s nature is meant to be free. Anyone who does not realize this is plain wrong and on the wrong side of history as they may realize in a few decades. If there are any laws being broken – change them. If any business model is getting affected – destroy it. It’s as simple as that. Period. Hope you random folks offering random high flung arguments understand this simple point and get some sense.

If information is meant to be free, how come people have been making money from it for centuries, not just a few years? I am sure all murderers will welcome the idea that if laws are being broken, they should be changed. As for the notion that I, as one of the commentators on this blog, unthinkingly support the scholarly publishing industry, I suggest you do some research on me. I am highly critical of the industry. I worked in it for 12 years, so know how it operates. But I don’t want to abolish it; I want it reformed – something quite different.

This blog and this whole website is a propaganda against Sci-hub. Why don’t you guys declare your affiliations at the outset – that you are serving the publishing industry? Why offer such complicated arguments when your ulterior motives are already in opposition to the basic principles of Sci-hub?

Ah the classics, the anonymous commenter complaining about others lack of stated credentials. If you look just above these comments, you will see the bio of the author of this piece, a librarian at a public university. If you look here (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/about/), you will see a description of who is behind this site and the reasons that it exists. If you look here, you will see the bios of everyone who writes for this site (https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/chefs/).

Are you willing to offer up the same level of information about yourself so we can decide about the ulterior motives of your comment?

I fall into the category of #3 and #4: The evilness of the current incumbents makes me inclined to support the civil disobedience of the pirates. I’ve written a longer post on this on my blog, but I don’t really support piracy ( I really don’t), but I think its a really useful metric to see how broken the current business models are. Music and movies have adapted to the digital environment, and were forced to by piracy. My advice is to check your logs, see where the piracy is happening at your institution, and wonder why. My answer is until scholarly publishing can be as good as the pirates in providing the right material easily, then the pirates will flourish.

For what it’s worth, I don’t think there’s any mystery at all as to why people are using Sci-Hub. It’s free, and it’s easy. Mystery solved. The problem is that what makes it free and easy is the fact that its content is stolen.

Should libraries and publishers do more to make content easily accessible via legitimate means? Absolutely, and believe it or not, both libraries and publishers are constantly trying to do that. Should we be doing better? Absolutely. But some degree of friction is probably inevitable with legitimate access, just as it’s inevitable in a shop — it’s much less convenient to wait in line at the cashier than it is to simply take what you want off the shelves and leave. So Sci-Hub will probably always be, to some degree, both cheaper and easier than any kind of legitimate access.

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