Unsurprisingly, Elbakyan’s project has drawn the ire of publishers. Last year, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub and an associated website called Library Genesis for violating its copyright. The two websites “operate an international network of piracy and copyright infringement by circumventing legal and authorized means of access to the ScienceDirect database,” Elsevier’s lawyers wrote in a court filing, referring to the company’s subscription database.
A judge for the New York Southern District Court ruled in favor of the publisher, and Sci-Hub’s domain, sci-hub.org, was shut down. Soon, the service popped up again under a different domain.
But even if the new domain gets shut down, too, Sci-Hub will still be accessible on the dark web, a part of the Internet often associated with drugs, weapons, and child porn. Like its seedy dark-web neighbors, the Sci-Hub site is accessible only through Tor, a network of computers that passes web requests through a randomized series of servers in order to preserve visitors’ anonymity.
Illegal activity thrives on this part of the Internet, partly because its contents aren’t visible to search engines like Google. The Tor network makes it very difficult to know where an offending server is, allowing sites like Silk Road, a prominent drug marketplace, to survive for years. (Silk Road was finally shut down in 2013 and its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison.)
But the investigation that took down the Silk Road took up countless government resources. It’s unlikely the new Sci-Hub website would attract the same amount of negative attention, so the website is likely safe behind the many layers of encryption that protect sites on the dark web.
So why go through all this trouble to provide access to pirated academic research? In a letter submitted to the New York district court where she was being sued, Elbakyan said her experience as a student in Kazakhstan drove her to set up the website. Paying upwards of 30 dollars to access a paper is “insane,” she wrote, when researchers regularly need to access tens or even hundreds of articles.
Elbakyan says free access to academic research also helps promote researchers’ independence. “Today, subscription prices are very high; an individual person cannot pay them,” she wrote to me in an email. “You need to join one of the few available research institutions, and for that you need to conform to … standards that suppress creativity.”
Websites like Sci-Hub and Library Genesis have a lot of support from the academic community, including from the authors whose work is being traded for free in shadowy corners of the Internet.
In 2012, during a large-scale academic boycott of Elsevier, even well-endowed Harvard University announced it was having trouble paying large publishers’ annual fees. “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices,” the former director of the university’s library told The Guardian. Well-organized boycotts and open-access movements continue to flourish in academia.