Depending on whom you ask, Sci-Hub — the piracy network for academic journals — is either the Robin Hood of academic publishing or a parasite preying upon for-profit publishers. A lawsuit filed by Elsevier, the publishing giant, led to the suspension of one of Sci-Hub’s most prominent domain names last week, but the network continues to allow millions of academic articles to be downloaded around the world.
What do the authors of the papers think? Do they feel they’ve been ripped off? Are they flattered? After Science revealed the 10 most-downloaded papers on Sci-Hub, The Chronicle spoke to three authors whose articles appeared on the list.
There’s no obvious formula for a widely downloaded Sci-Hub article. Topics of popular papers range from wind-turbine tests to iron deficiencies. Publication dates of the 10 articles range from 2000 to 2015, but most of them were published more than five years ago. Some of the papers are kept behind journal paywalls; others, published through open-access models, are already available free.
That might raise eyebrows: Why bother to pirate material that is already available free? For some Sci-Hub users, who see piracy of paywalled articles as a financial necessity, it could be the convenience of finding every paper in one place. But many academics whose work has been widely downloaded on the site say they’re not sure what it all means — or whether the popularity of their work on Sci-Hub is anything more than an interesting footnote.
Jordan S. Pober, Yale University
Until last month, Jordan S. Pober had never heard of Sci-Hub.
Mr. Pober, a professor of pathology and translational medicine at Yale University, first learned of the piracy site when a colleague forwarded him an email about the Science article. "It’s flattering, but it’s a dubious honor," he says. Mr. Pober was one of several authors contacted by The Chronicle who wasn’t aware of the site’s existence until recently. At 67 years old, he generally uses only university libraries to gain access to journal articles. "It’s a generational thing," he says of Sci-Hub’s success.
His article, "Efficient Gene Disruption in Cultured Primary Human Endothelial Cells by CRISPR/Cas9," was published in the American Heart Association’s Circulation Research journal in the summer of 2015. Mr. Pober’s research determined that the endothelial cells, which are derived from umbilical-cord blood and are non-cancer-forming, could be divided by the genome-editing approach and cloned. This method, he says, is an important advancement in cell therapy and tissue engineering. The paper was downloaded just over 2,000 times from September 2015 through February 2016, making it the ninth-most-downloaded paper on Sci-Hub during that time.
What makes the paper so popular? Mr. Pober says he knew his work had gained attention, just not with online pirates. The research was something of a real-world hit too: It was promoted by Circulation Research as one of its 10 most-read articles of 2015, and Mr. Pober says the journal temporarily offered it to the public free.
Mr. Pober says the article’s subject matter is likely to have played a big role in its popularity. "In biology there has been this technology revolution of being able to manipulate cells genetically by the use of CRISPR/Cas9, but there have been limitations of this approach," he says.
Mr. Pober says he doesn’t mind that many people download his paper free since he didn’t make money from its publication. In fact, like most academics, he paid to submit his article.
"I’m torn in the sense I think it would be better for the science community if findings were made freely available," he says. "But I’m not sure how to sustain functions of society journals."
Parwiz Abrahimi, Yale University
Mr. Pober might not have known what to make of his appearance on the Science list, but Parwiz Abrahimi, a medical Ph.D. student in Mr. Pober’s research lab and a co-author of the CRISPR paper, was excited when he came across the article by chance. To him, the paper’s popularity on Sci-Hub was "an honor." And it made sense: "CRISPR papers are hot right now," he says.
As a researcher attempting to get his work disseminated to as many people as possible, he feels Sci-Hub is actually helping. "I never felt people were pirating my work," he says. He has never used the piracy site, but he says he has many friends in Iran and Afghanistan for whom it is the only way to read many academic articles.
Of course, not everyone who uses the piracy site does so out of that kind of need. Data retrieved by Science show that many downloads come from the United States, and many Americans using the site are located in areas with large research libraries.
Roeland Verhaak, University of Texas
A third scholar who showed up on the Science list identifies himself as a huge proponent of open-access research. "I feel work paid for with public money should be open for free," says Roeland Verhaak, an associate professor in the department of bioinformatics and computational biology at the University of Texas' M.D. Anderson Cancer Center.
Mr. Verhaak’s article, "Comprehensive, Integrative Genomic Analysis of Diffuse Lower-Grade Gliomas," was published in The New England Journal of Medicine in the summer of 2015 and released to open access after six months.
Now 10 months old, the article has gotten more than 100 citations — a rare feat for a paper of such recent vintage. The content of the paper, which studies brain tumors, is important in the field, he says, but he was surprised to see that his paper was the second-most-downloaded on Sci-Hub, with over 6,000 downloads from September to February. "What we describe is very clinical, and how to group different brain tumors — it’s a specific topic," he says. "It’s not something for a general audience."
Still, he doesn’t think the paper’s wide readership on Sci-Hub will have much impact. "It’s a funny side note to our daily lives," he says. "It doesn’t mean anything more."