Where Does Sci-Hub Fit In?

A circular and messy pile of books and papers.

This post was guest authored by Scholarly Communication and Publishing Graduate Assistant Paige Kuester.

Open access is not as simple as it may seem. In addition to conflicting definitions of open access itself, there are many different kinds, which may or may not follow the definitions previously put forth. There are three basic types that scholars discuss: gold, green, and hybrid, which are defined in this LibGuide.

There are also the colors that authors utilize to describe a category that does not fall under the three listed above, including but not limited to: bronze, diamond/platinum, and blue, white, and yellow.

And then there’s a whole category, black, just for Sci-Hub.

Okay, it’s not just for Sci-Hub, it also includes other platforms like ResearchGate and the like, where articles are freely shared by authors, but mainly, it’s for Sci-Hub.

Now keep in mind that most of these terms and definitions are up for debate, so take it all with a grain of salt.

The first question is: is Sci-Hub even open access?

If we are defining OA as freely available, then the answer would probably be “yes.” However, if we are defining OA as “legally” and freely available, then probably not. It does not following licensing laws, it is often unavailable, and the content is usually from subscribed entities meaning that someone is still paying somewhere, according to this article by Angela Cochran, of The Scholarly Kitchen.

Actually, the real first question is: What is Sci-Hub?

Sci-Hub is a website that was started in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a then-Kazakhstani graduate student who was tired of facing paywalls for articles that she could not get access to (which is something we can all relate to, honestly). So she created a way around it with Sci-Hub, which grabs articles behind institutional and publisher paywalls and makes them freely available. If it does not already have an article, it will retrieve it for you and make it accessible to others.

This, of course, has varying consequences across the board.

So who is it hurting?

Obviously, publishers like Elsevier don’t like it. They aren’t getting paid for the articles that they provide access to. In fact, they have already sued Elbakyan and won, which caused the website to shut down temporarily, until it popped back up under a different domain. This is an ongoing battle.

Even open access Publishers may be harmed in the process, says Cochran again. Though open access articles are already openly available, open access platforms traditionally also informs readers of what they can do with the work, like reuse, revise, retain, remix, and redistribute. This information is valuable to both the reader and the publisher, as the reader knows the rights regarding the work, and the publisher does not get this work used unfairly. This is lost on Sci-Hub. Additionally, OA publishers lose income by not keeping people on their sites to buy other products or services, it hides the real costs of OA publishing, and Sci-Hub does not give researchers the full picture of the article, just the text itself, no comments or retractions (or stated rights) attached.

Authors and researchers seem to be stuck in the middle. They cannot get an accurate picture of their article’s citation impact because Sci-Hub does not provide download counts for the authors, and most reputable citation indices would not calculate Sci-Hub downloads into them, anyways. However, as many of the main users in the US appear to be around college campuses, in all likelihood, there are researchers who are accessing articles this way, if for nothing else than convenience.

Similarly, students are still utilizing this site even if their institutions do have access to the articles. This is true even when the articles are open access, which makes it very clear that part of the appeal is convenience–not having to log in using credentials, for example.

What next?

This is the trickiest question of all.

There are a lot of opinions about Sci-Hub, but there are not many answers. If you are for open access, then the best way to reduce the threat of Sci-Hub against open access is to publish and access articles through those OA routes. The OA model can’t sustain itself if it does not have support. But if the knowledge needed is not accessible through OA means, then that is another question entirely. Librarians are torn on this issue, and time will tell how the publishers come out in this legally. However, it is very unlikely that Sci-Hub, or sites like it, will go away anytime soon.


Björk, Bo-Christer. (2017, February 7). Gold, Green, and Black Access. Learned Publishing. Retrieved from http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/leap.1096/full

Bohannon, John. (2016, April 28). Who’s Downloading Pirate Papers? Everyone. Science. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/04/whos-downloading-pirated-papers-everyone

Cochran, Angela. (2017, June 6). Are Open Access Journals Immune from Piracy? The Scholarly Kitchen. Retrieved from https://scholarlykitchen.sspnet.org/2017/06/06/open-access-journals-immune-piracy/

Geffert, Bryn. (2016, September 4). Piracy Fills a Publishing Need. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Piracy-Fills-a-Publishing-Need/237651

McKenzie, Lindsay. (2017, July 27) Sci-Hub’s Pirated Papers So Big, Subscription Journals Are Doomed, Data Analyst Suggests. Science. Retrieved from http://www.sciencemag.org/news/2017/07/sci-hub-s-cache-pirated-papers-so-big-subscription-journals-are-doomed-data-analyst

Ruff, Corinne. (2016, February 8). Librarians Find Themselves Caught Between Journal Pirates and Publishers. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://www.chronicle.com/article/Librarians-Find-Themselves/235353

Waddell, Kaveh. (2016, February 9). The Research Pirates of the Dark Web. The Atlantic. Retrieved from https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/02/the-research-pirates-of-the-dark-web/461829/

Open Access Week at the University of Illinois Library

It’s that time of year again! Open Access Week is October 23-27, and the University of Illinois Library is excited to participate. Open Access Week is an international event where the academic and research community come together to learn about Open Access and to share that knowledge with others. In its eighth year, the U of I Library has a great week of events planned!

  • Monday: Workshop: “A Crash Course in Open Access”, 12-1 PM, 314 Main Library
  • Tuesday: Workshop: Open Access Publishing and You, 12-1 PM, 314 Main Library
  • Wednesday: Workshop: Managing Your Copyright and Author’s Rights, 12-1 PM, 314 Main Library
  • Thursday: Scholarly Communication Interest Group Kickoff meeting, 12-1 PM, 106 Main Library
  • Friday: Workshop: Sharing Your Research with ORCiDs, DOIs, and open data repositories, 12-1 PM, 314 Main Library

Fore more information on open access, visit the Scholarly Communication and Publishing website.