Robin Hood or robber baron?

Many, if not all, scientists have suffered the frustration of not being able to access all the available information when researching their field of study. They are often faced with the choice of whether it is worth expending research funds to access information that may, or may not, provide valuable information. Scientists can be faced with the dilemma of whether or not they should rely on the data provided in the freely available abstract. This can often restrict access to the findings of research paid for by tax-payers money. Clearly, there are issues with a system that puts financial hurdles in the way of scientific progress. Should publishing moguls continue to make massive profits from research you paid for and work (such as peer review) freely provided by academics? Those funding research, such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, have announced that research it has funded should not be submitted to some journals because they do not comply with open-access policies. But it is taking time. Does this justify organisations such as Sci-hub?

Sci-Hub is an online search engine that is believed to have nearly 60 million academic articles available for free download. The repository provides a means of  bypassing publisher pay-walls. New papers are uploaded daily. It advocates cancellation of intellectual property, or copyright laws, for scientific and educational resources. Sci-hub was founded by Kazakh graduate student, Alexandra Elbakyan, in 2011. She determined to provide the service in response to the high cost of research papers that are locked behind pay-walls - where a manuscript can typically cost US$30.

A study by PhD student Bastian Greshake of Goethe University Frankfurt in Germany showed that of approximately 28 million recorded SciHub downloads between September 1, 2015, and February 29, 2016, 80% were of papers from just nine publishers, perhaps underlining the power held by just a few businesses. According to Greshake’s analysis of SciHub downloads (data made freely available by the site), recently published papers are among the most highly accessed through the service. Nature had the largest number of paper downloads, with more than 250,000 (exact data not given). Science came in third, closely behind the Journal of the American Chemical Society, both with between 150,000 and 200,000 papers downloaded.

So, the question arises as to whether the service offered by Alexandra Elbakyan is equivalent to that of Robin Hood or whether it is simply theft. Certainly, publishers have adopted the position of the Sheriff of Nottingham in the heroic tale. In 2015 academic publisher Elsevier filed a legal complaint in New York City against Sci-hub alleging copyright infringement by Sci-Hub, and the subsequent lawsuit led to a loss of the original domain. Following the first domain loss, Sci-Hub has cycled through a number of domains, some of which have been blocked in certain countries. 

Between 2010 and early 2011, hacktivist Aaron Schwartz tried to download academic journal papers from JSTOR, a digital repository which hid tax-payer-funded knowledge, that should be in the public domain, behind a pay-wall. He was arrested and indicted by a federal grand jury on charges of wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, and recklessly damaging a protected computer. At the worst, he faced 50 years in prison, all for copying some articles for the benefit of others. He later apparently committed suicide.

Sci-Hub has been highly controversial, lauded by parts of the scientific and academic communities and condemned by publishers.