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Sci-Hub: Academic Piracy or Open Access?

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Sci-Hub has been in the news recently as The City of London Police announced that the website is a risk to students. Seb Wieneke investigated the arguments surrounding freedom of information and academia…

Describing themselves as “The first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers”, many in academia have at least heard mention of Sci-Hub. Created by Russian computer science researcher and “pirate queen” Alexandra Elbakyan, the site currently claims to have access to over 85 million academic papers, and it is estimated that it includes 80% of the world’s scientific papers.

All one needs to do for access is to enter the URL of the paper they are trying to access and click “open”. Sci-Hub works by removing paywalls and copyright restrictions from scientific papers, barriers which, in their words, “effectively slow down the development of science in human society”. Elbakyan sees her invention as a tool of necessity in order to combat inequality in the global research community, giving everyone the means to access the resources they need at no cost.

The three core principles by which Elbakyan runs her platform are as follows: Knowledge to all, No copyright, Open access. The website has a global reach, aiding countless nameless researchers and students. Despite Sci-Hub’s outwardly pro-science message, some believe it does more harm for the future of open access academia than good. One must also consider the ethics and practices involved in targeting institutions, and methods used for stealing intellectual property.

In a press statement released last week, The City of London Police’s Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) warned that the website could be stealing and misusing the information of its users.

According to PIPCU, Sci-Hub uses “a variety of malicious means” to trick university students and staff into giving out their login details to their university accounts. This can include ‘phishing’ emails sent to bait the target into giving away a username and password. The credentials obtained in this way are later used when a user requests a journal article, in order to retrieve it from the relevant institution’s website. PSI CEO Andrew Pitts revealed that 42 UK universities were known to have been hacked by Sci-Hub through these means.

A spokesperson for the unit clarified that accessing such websites is illegal and that visitors may be at risk of having their own academic credentials stolen.

Max Bruce, Cyber Protect Officer from the City of London Police urged universities to block the website on their network, and for students to diligently practice cybersecurity measures and to always use strong, separate passwords for their personal and university accounts.If you’re tricked into revealing your login credentials, whether it’s through the use of fake emails or malware, we know that Sci Hub will then use those details to compromise your university’s computer network in order to steal research papers.

Loughborough University provides access to several E-Journals and databases through the Library webpage and Library catalogue plus. These link to online subscription-only Journals, which are all accessible to Loughborough students using their academic credentials.

We talked to a third-year chemistry student currently completing an industrial placement with a nationally respected research group, who was positive that academic accessibility at the University was adequate.

They insisted that there were “very few Journals” which they had difficulty accessing, and accessing academic resources is “easily done with and without a VPN as most sites [allow you to]sign in through the Loughborough portal”.

They did, however, admit that restrictions to availability of journals in smaller institutions may encourage piracy of academic papers. They complained that they don’t have “enough access” on their work laptop and that they were considering installing the Loughborough VPN in order to consult university resources for their project.

A student looking pensively into a laptop

Photo by Wes Hicks

When asked where they stood in the debate on open access science, they had this to say: “Journals play an important role in filtering out the bad science” [so]“removing their means (of funding) could be damaging to the quality of science that is put into the public domain”, however they admitted that it was a “complicated issue”, and that although they did not believe this was a big problem for their course, students of other disciplines may encounter difficulties in accessing the sources they need.

However, another student had a very different experience with the support offered by the University. They admitted that they’d used Sci-Hub, though they stopped as they felt it” wasn’t right”. “The desperation is real to use any mechanism to access (academic) sources”, they said.

As a final year, they felt disappointed with the availability of resources on their course. Physical books in the library are not all available online, which makes access difficult or even impossible for students currently studying remotely. The unavailability of textbooks is a factor that is leading to an increase in academic journal piracy, causing further problems for publishers.

When asked whether they were in favour of open access scientific publishing, they said that although they believed that “publishers should get something in return”, they’d had difficulty accessing what they’d needed from the University source.

Although academic accessibility may not be a problem for those on some courses, there are students who aren’t so lucky. Surely the University and the Library are responsible for ensuring everyone has access to the resources they need. Not only is it their obligation due to the service they provide, but it is in their best interests to discourage individuals from consulting potentially illicit websites to complete their coursework.

We reached out to the University for comment but received no reply.

Matt Youngs, Union President, provided us with his perspective.

“If I think back to my days as a student at both undergraduate and postgraduate level, I always found the resources offered by the Library to be more than complimentary to my research. At no point did I have to pay for a source or subscription, and if the library didn’t have access to a specific article I wanted, they would often go out of their way to source it for me digitally or in print, always free of charge”

However, he did acknowledge that it is possible he was “lucky” with his course (Geography) and research, saying he believed it would be naïve to imagine that there were no restrictions to accessibility and that he was “sure that there were students who would say to the contrary”. He talked of “numerous (accessibility) challenges at higher education institutions around the world”, thinking on a larger scale than just the university. He concluded by saying that although his own experience suggested it was not a universal problem, it is certainly a nuanced topic.

Matt Youngs, Union President 2020-21

When asked about where he stood on the debate on open access science, he gave a nuanced statement addressing both the plight of open access campaigners and publishers, as well as a potential compromise:

“The notion that everyone should be able to access ‘knowledge’ is one that, conceptually, is hard to disagree with. However, publishers are fundamentally a business so strive to make a profit. Whether profit should be made from allowing individuals to access knowledge opens a whole can of worms and brings up the question of tuition fees. Where do you stop? That said, I do remember seeing a tweet a couple of years ago from an academic saying that if you ever come up against an article or paper hidden behind a paywall it’s often worth directly contacting the author(s). they’ll often be so happy you are choosing to read and cite their research that they’ll give you access free of charge. This seems like a reasonable compromise and antidote to paywalls”

Matt Youngs, LSU President

Some movements are looking at more sustainable ways to tackle this complicated issue head-on.

Plan S is an international open-access initiative that aims for “full and immediate open access to scholarly publications”, both privately and publicly funded. The program is funded by several institutions across Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.

Contrary to Sci-Hub’s “pirate” philosophy, Plan S aims to work with publishers, not against them. Plan S principles decree that the funders or research institutions must pay for the publication costs of an article, not the individual researcher. An open-access publishing model which ensures that costs are covered while still keeping the resource free at the point of use is a more sustainable solution than those offered by open access platforms such as Sci-Hub, where subscriptions are bypassed. This would also (n theory) help to maintain the quality of the publishing.

“The chain, whereby new scientific discoveries are built on new scientific results, can only work optimally if all research results are made openly available to the scientific community”

-Plan S, why plan S?

Organisations within the Plan S coalition will be given the resources and infrastructure (where necessary) to establish and support high-quality open access journals and platforms. The funders of the program will be responsible for ensuring compliance with the guidelines set in terms of quality and accessibility. The initiative also outlines its plan to allow participants a transformative time window in which a “hybrid” publishing model can be used, but only as a transformative arrangement and under the condition that the platform will implement full open access publishing by their set deadline. Each joining organisation must move entirely to open access within one year of the agreement.

So, what should we take away from this? Academic journal piracy may feel necessary for those who cannot access the resources they feel they need, but those who engage in it should be aware that the sites that they visit could be posing a security risk to them and their institution.

A person writing down information from a laptop

Photo by Josefa Ndiaz

Furthermore, the campaign for open access academia is growing. If Plan S is realised, many publications covering a wide range of disciplines will be fully open access by the end of this year. Work put out by countless other publishers engaging in similar schemes is already accessible at zero cost to the reader. However, serious open access publishing for many journals is in its infancy, and although several major publishers have committed to the initiative, there are still many more yet to be convinced.

Despite its controversial methods and security risks, the meteoric rise of pirate movements such as Sci-Hub over the past ten years is seen by many to be a necessary means towards global freedom of information. Giving academics an easy way to dodge access fees and subscriptions have forced many publications to quickly adapt their methods. In a field where open access appears to be the future, maybe activists such as Alexandra Elbakyan just sped the process up a little.

Article by Seb Wieneke, and edited by Chris Leroux

Images were collected as part of Creative Commons (CC)

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LSU Media Vice Chair 2020-21 LSU Media Chair 2019-20 Hall Media Coordinator 2018-19

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