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Sci-Hub: A scholarly publications pirate site

August 4, 2016

Sci-Hub: A scholarly publications pirate site

Sci-Hub is a scholarly publications pirate site.  This overview aims to give Bond University staff and students some sense as to the nature and extent of the site and provide further reading that explores the global anti-establishment trend which is feeding its growth and momentum. 

Personal use of material from the Sci-Hub site and/or referral of others to use this site is a copyright infringement. Staff and students of Bond University are required to act in accordance with the university’s Copyright Compliance Policy (TLR 6.01) and the Student and Staff Acceptable Use of ICT Facilities Policies (TEC 1.01 and TEC 1.04).


Sci-Hub is a torrent site that provides readers with access to scientific articles without subscription or payment.  

Sci-Hub’s mottos are2:

  • Knowledge to all – with the removal of financial, social and geographical barriers
  • No copyright – advocates for the cancellation of intellectual property, or copyright laws for scientific and educational resources
  • Open Access – making science research free to read

Sci-Hub was set up in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan a software developer and neurotechnology researcher from Kazakhstan, now residing in Russia. Since 2013 Sci-Hub has been collaborating with another pirate site called Library Genesis (LibGen) which acts as the repository for the downloaded pdfs and claims to contain more than 52 million copies of articles from approximately 50,000 publications as of July 2016.3  

Sci-Hub is supported by donations via Bitcoin4 and continues to grow with the assistance of sympathetic researchers who freely provide their university library database passwords5 allowing Sci-Hub to locate wanted articles and download them to its distributed repositories (LibGen).  

The site began and grew out of Elbakyan’s experience and frustration, along with many other researchers in developing countries, of hitting paywalls when searching for scientific papers for her thesis. The rise of Sci-Hub popularity in India, Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia and Brazil has however spilled over into the developed world with one reporter6 stating that the ‘US originates the second highest amount of traffic’.

In April 2016 Alexandra Elbakyan provided Sci-Hub download data to author John Bohannon which highlighted the fact that researchers in developed countries, with access to university site licences to publications, comprise a significant percentage of the users of the pirate site.7  See the map above depicting the extent of Sch-Hub global impact with 29 million download requests over the period of September 2015 to February 2016.8  Bohannon’s looping map, on the article’s webpage, of Sci-Hub activity on 5 February 2016 shows Australia and New Zealand as small scale users of Sci-Hub.9

Elsevier’s Science Direct database is a primary target of Sci-Hubs copyright infringement and Elsevier has taken legal action in the US to have Sci-Hub’s domain taken down, but this has not deterred or stopped Sci-Hub’s access activity.

The Wikipedia entry on Sci-Hub notes:

In 2016 Sci-Hub's .io domain was taken offline after a complaint from Elsevier was directed to the site's Chinese registrar, Despite the takedown by the registrar, Sci-Hub remains reachable via alternate domains, IP address and a .onion Tor Hidden Service scihub22266oqcxt.onion; the latter of which TorrentFreak states is "pretty much immune" to takedown requests. 10

See the graphic above showing that material copyrighted to Elsevier makes up a large percentage of requested articles.11

Impact of ‘free’ open access

The Sci-Hub phenomenon is highlighting the difficulties of gold Open Access in the face of entrenched publisher copyright barriers to scholarship.  Academics who author and provide peer review service on a gratis basis and then can only access their work via expensive paywalls have railed against this standard closed publishing model for many years.  The rising journal subscription costs are also edging out access for educational institutions in developed countries, so there is an undercurrent of empathy in academia. 

…the risk for publishers is that if library funding struggles continue, forcing deep cutbacks on subscriptions, professors will turn to Sci-Hub more, causing a slow erosion of the industry. A recent survey by University of Southern California and California State University librarians of more than 250 academics found that 41 percent “don’t care” about copyright. Thirty percent think that “information should be free”. 12

Obviously the effect of pirate sites like Sci-hub goes beyond that of unlawful access to scholarly works.

A précis of the situation is put forward by the Editor-in-Chief of Science Journals in her article My love-hate of Sci-Hub.13 Considerations and risks she raises about the possible impact of using Sci-Hub, beyond the obvious illegalities, are:

  • Loss of article usage – citations and/or download counts
  • The effect on the ability of non-profit scientific societies to provide journals and support their research communities
  • Undervaluation of the professional standards of academic journals and the editorial work of the staff they employ
  • Impact on the rising costs of digital publishing – especially monographs which are also being targeted by Sci-Hub
  • Increasing cost of scientific publishing driven by the expansion of content

At the same time the open access movement, with its various publishing models, is gaining momentum and is being supported by governments and national funders which, along with public domain sites, is the legitimate counter to using pirated closed publisher content.


1 Bohannon, John, (Apr.28.2016) Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone. Science News. 26 July 2016. 

2  Sci-Hub homepage. 

3  Library Genesis (n.d.) Wikipedia

4  Sci-Hub homepage.

Robin Hood neuroscientist behind Sci-Hub research-piratesite talksto RT Retrieved 26 July 2016.

6 Glance, David (June 2016) Elsevier acts against research article pirate sites and claims irreparable harm. The Conversation. Retrieved 26 July 2016..

7 Bohannon, John, (Apr.28.2016) Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone.  Science News. 26 July 2016.

8  Ibid.

9  Ibid.

10Sci-Hub (n.d.) Wikipedia  Retrieved 26 July 2016.

11 Bohannon, John, (Apr.28.2016) Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone.  Science New, Retrieved 26 July 2016.

12 Rosenwald, Michael, S. (March 2016) This student put 50 million stolen research articles online. And they’re free. The Washington Post. Retrieved 27 July 2016.

13 McNutt, Marcia (29 April 2016) My love-hate of Sci-Hub. Science,Vol.352, Iss.6285. pp.497. Retrieved 27 July 2016.

Antoinette Cass, Manager, Scholarly Publications & Copyright