Open for Whom? Open Access Week 2019

Open Access Week is upon us and this year’s theme, “Open for Whom?” has us investigating how open access benefits the student population here at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. According to the Open Access Week official blog, this theme is meant to start a conversation on “whose interests are being prioritized in the actions we take and the platforms we support” towards open access. They raise an important question: Are we supporting not only open access but also equitable participation in research communication?

To explore this question on our campus, on Monday morning, we set out on an initiative to see how much our students are paying for textbooks this semester and asked how free, open textbooks would help them. How might having access to open educational resources such as textbooks help our student body participate in research communication and the academic community of the University?

At the four major libraries across campus, posters were set up for students to anonymously indicate how much money they have spent on textbooks this semester. They did this by placing a sticker dot on the poster that best fit their expense range, as pictured below. Alongside each poster was a whiteboard with an open question that students could answer: “How would free, open textbooks help you?”

Grainger Engineering Library "How much did you spend on textbooks this semester?" Results

Grainger Engineering Library Results

By Tuesday afternoon these boards were filling up with answers from students. While this was an open board to post their thoughts, of course, we had some humorous answers including: “More money for coffee, “I would cry less,” and “More McChicken.” However, despite the occasional joke, the majority of the answers focused on saving money. Many students commented on the tremendous cost of higher education and not only the high prices of textbooks but the additional costs of supplemental online workbooks provided by Chegg, WebAssign, or McGraw Hill – Connect. Students agreed that textbooks as resources for their education should be free and available. A worrying result of these discussion boards was students sharing the ways in which they illegally access textbooks in lieu of purchasing them; many sharing links to illegitimate websites.

Comments on the discussion board at Grainger Engineering Library

Comments on the discussion board at Grainger Engineering Library

Comments on the question "How would free, open textbooks help you?" in the Undergraduate Library

Comments on discussion board at the Undergraduate Library

Comments on the question "How would free, open textbooks help you?" in the Main Library

Comments on discussion board at the Main Library

So, open for whom? Open Access Resources (OER) offer a more affordable option for students and educators to access a quality educational experience. The Open Textbook Library describes open access textbooks as “funded, published, and licensed to be freely used, adapted, and distributed” and open for everyone’s use. Higher education institutions are gearing towards OER instead of requiring traditional textbooks and for students who are choosing between paying rent or purchasing textbooks, this can be life-changing.

Learn more about Open Educational Resources and how to find, evaluate, use and adapt OER materials for your needs.

What are you thoughts?


Open Access Textbook Resources

OER Commons – Open Textbooks

Punctum Books

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

Bohannon, John. (2016, April 28). Who’s Downloading Pirate Papers? Everyone. Science. Retrieved from

Cochran, Angela. (2017, June 6). Are Open Access Journals Immune from Piracy? The Scholarly Kitchen. Retrieved from

Geffert, Bryn. (2016, September 4). Piracy Fills a Publishing Need. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

McKenzie, Lindsay. (2017, July 27) Sci-Hub’s Pirated Papers So Big, Subscription Journals Are Doomed, Data Analyst Suggests. Science. Retrieved from

Ruff, Corinne. (2016, February 8). Librarians Find Themselves Caught Between Journal Pirates and Publishers. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from

Waddell, Kaveh. (2016, February 9). The Research Pirates of the Dark Web. The Atlantic. Retrieved from