My love-hate of Sci-Hub

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Science  29 Apr 2016:
Vol. 352, Issue 6285, pp. 497
DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf9419

Like many scientist-editors of journals published by nonprofit scientific societies, I have a love-hate relationship with Sci-Hub, the website operated out of Russia that provides access to 50 million pirated scientific articles to researchers worldwide (see the News story on p. 508). I recognize the underlying motivation of bringing global research content to the developing world. However, I also recognize that much traffic to Sci-Hub is from researchers who already have access to the articles they seek through mechanisms such as site licenses, open access, or other means. Authors who publish in Science journals, for example, can make their papers available immediately upon publication through free referrer links at the authors' websites. Research published after 1996 in a Science journal is made free with registration 1 year after its publication date. So what does the scientific community risk by gathering papers illegally?

One hour of Sci-Hub activity in February 2016


“…what does the scientific community risk by gathering papers illegally?”

The collateral damage may not seem obvious. When researchers access papers through Sci-Hub, article usage information is lost. Authors do not benefit from download statistics, for example, which are increasingly being used to assess the impact of their work. Libraries cannot properly track usage for the journals they provide and could wind up discontinuing titles that are useful to their institution. As institutions cancel subscriptions, the ability of nonprofit scientific societies to provide journals and support their research communities is diminished. Journals published by scientific societies such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science (the publisher of Science journals) are not the sole contribution to the research community; such nonprofit societies also support a range of efforts that have a history of benefiting the greater scientific enterprise, such as fellowships for young scientists, advocacy for science, science diplomacy, science education, and fostering science's many interfaces with culture and society. Like nonprofit scientific societies, university presses, largely subsidized by their parent institutions, are also at risk. These publishers already face many challenges, which now include Sci-Hub's unauthorized collection of their monographs.

Journals have real costs, even though they don't pay authors or reviewers, as they help ensure accuracy, consistency, and clarity in scientific communication. For most of the Science journals, editors are paid professionals who carefully curate the journal content to bring readers an important and exciting array of discoveries. They make sure that papers are complete and conform to standards of quality, transparency, openness, and integrity. There are layers of effort by copyeditors and proofreaders to check for adherence to standards in scientific usage of terms to prevent confusion. Illustrators create original illustrations, diagrams, and charts to help convey complex messages. Scientific communicators spread the word to top media outlets so that authors get excellent coverage and readers do not miss important discoveries. Our news reporters are constantly searching the globe for issues and events of interest to the research and nonscience communities. Our agile Internet technology department continually evolves the website, so that authors can submit their manuscripts and readers can access the journals more conveniently.

The costs of scientific publishing are increasing worldwide, driven by the expansion of content, which includes more contributions from the developing world, as well as open-access papers, which are supported through a different business model. Today, digital publishing is just as expensive as print for a state-of-the-art Web design that incorporates multimedia, is responsive to desktops, tablets, and smartphones, and maintains access to back content.

Scientific nonprofit societies do indeed understand the need to continue addressing research accessibility by those in challenged regions, but through legitimate means. For those who have such avenues but choose to pirate a paper instead, ask yourself whether it is worth risking the viability of a system that supports the quality and integrity of science. And please let us know your view of Sci-Hub: love or hate? (http://bit.ly/Sci-Hub)

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