If you’ve ever tried to research a topic for a class or a research project, you know it can be frustrating. In a world of publicly-funded research and freely-available information on the internet, full-text research articles are almost always behind paywalls. Yearly subscriptions to a journal can be thousands of dollars, and access to individual articles can be upwards of $30. Although many who are involved in research are fortunate enough to go to a university that gives them access to multiple databases with full-text research articles, this process can still be frustrating. Oftentimes after hopping between databases on the university library website one comes up empty-handed. More recently, however, a controversial website called Sci-Hub has been providing free access to nearly every research article out there at the click of a button.1 All the researcher needs to do is paste the title of the article or the article’s DOI into the search bar, and the network will bring you a PDF file of the full article within seconds.
Before Sci-Hub, researchers had to either be affiliated with a major institution or communicate on online forums to request articles from those who were. However, in 2011 Kazakhstanian researcher Alexandra Elbakyan created the website Sci-Hub, which bypasses journal paywalls and illegally provides almost every research article ever published instantaneously for anyone with internet access. The website works by first attempting to download a copy of the article from the database of pirated articles called LibGen. However, if this does not work, Sci-Hub will bypass journal paywalls using access keys donated by researchers at institutions with access and retrieve a PDF of the full-text article.2
Next, the network donates the retrieved article to the LibGen database, where it will remain available to the public for free. Sci-Hub has over 19 million users every day 3 and now boasts over 50 million articles, many of which are supposed to be behind $10 billion worth of paywalls, and the number of articles grows every day as both old and newly published articles are harvested.4
Who exactly is using this website? It’s not exclusively shady people and poor researchers in small institutions who can’t afford scholarly journal access; a recent review in the journal “Science” concluded that almost everyone downloads pirated papers,5 this is partly because the $10 billion access paywall is restrictive even to institutions such as Harvard University, 6 and simply because it’s faster than using traditional databases.7
Although what Sci-Hub is doing is technically illegal, for the most part only database companies are retaliating. Most researchers are in favor of their articles becoming more widely available and agree that the system of vastly expensive paywalls is less than ideal.8 Will Sci-Hub simply begin to dissipate after finally being defeated by lawsuits? Or will it turn the tables toward a world of more public and freely-accessible research? Only time will tell, but at this rate Sci-Hub is growing rapidly. Due to its controversial nature, the website’s address changes occasionally. As of now, the website can be reached at Sci-Hub.tw. The working address is updated every day on this Twitter page.