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Paper Pirates

Researchers all over the world have been turning to file-sharing site Sci-Hub to access papers they might not have otherwise been able to get, Science's John Bohannon reports.

Neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan created the site in 2011 when she was a 22-year-old graduate student in Kazakhstan. She has said that she developed the site both so she could access papers for her own work and to show how pay walls affect the flow of information. If a researcher or his or her institution doesn't have a subscription to a journal, getting a copy of one paper can cost around $30, which can quickly add up.

Publisher Elsevier sued her and her site, winning an injunction, but the site quickly popped up at a different domain.

Elbakyan provided Bohannon with enough data about Sci-Hub to get a glimpse of the site's users. Between September 2015 and February 2016, Sci-Hub had 28 million download requests. Some 4.4 million requests came from China, and the next heaviest users were India, Iran, Russia, and the US. As some Iranians mirror the site, its download requests may be inflated, Bohannon notes.

"The geography of Sci-Hub usage generally looks like a map of scientific productivity, but with some of the richer and poorer science-focused nations flipped," he adds.

That researchers in richer countries — and in cities with universities and research centers — rely on Sci-Hub does suggest that some use it out of convenience rather than necessity, Bohannon writes, as it is a one-stop shop for many papers.

"Even when researchers do have access, most publisher websites are not well designed," Ben Lehner, a geneticist at the Centre for Genomic Regulation, adds at Nature News. "They don't deliver what people want, which is fast access to the PDFs of papers."

Publishers, Bohannon adds, worry that Sci-Hub might be academic publishing's Napster. "I don't endorse illegal tactics," Peter Suber, director of the Office for Scholarly Communications at Harvard University, tells him. He adds, though, that "a lawsuit isn't going to stop it, nor is there any obvious technical means. Everyone should be thinking about the fact that this is here to stay."