Scientific community

A representation of 28 million download requests to the Sci-Hub site over a 6-month period.

(Data) Sci-Hub; (Map) Adapted by G. Grullón/Science

In survey, most give thumbs-up to pirated papers

Last week, a feature article in Science analyzed 28 million download requests over 6 months from Sci-Hub, a popular repository of pirated scientific literature. The data showed widespread use of Sci-Hub around the world, in countries rich and poor, and in all fields of science. The story also included an online survey of attitudes toward Sci-Hub, which generated nearly 11,000 responses before it was closed on 5 May.

The survey sample is likely biased heavily toward fans of the site—nearly 60% of respondents report having used Sci-Hub and a quarter do so daily or weekly—so some may not be surprised that 88% overall said it was not wrong to download pirated papers. But take note, academic publishers—it’s not just young respondents and heavy Sci-Hub users who feel that way. A closer look at the survey data indicated that respondents in almost every category embrace the rebellion, even those who have never used Sci-Hub or are 51 and older—84% and 79%, respectively, had no qualms.

The survey also sheds light on a controversy sparked by the Science article. Sci-Hub appears to be heavily used not just in the developing world but in Europe and the United States, where institutional access to journals is more common; in the United States, many downloads appear to map to locations with universities or many research institutions. The pattern suggests that a significant share of Sci-Hub users are academics or others with traditional journal access. But some have challenged this interpretation, speculating that the download locations simply reflect internet traffic hubs or other artifacts, instead of the actual locations of Sci-Hub users. John Bohannon, the story’s author, who worked with Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan to obtain the data set, says he considered and rejected the traffic hub explanations. And he was assured by Elbakyan that the anonymized, coded internet protocol (IP) addresses she provided reflect the end-users’ IP address.

The survey offers a secondary source of data on this contentious issue. Whereas more than 50% of respondents said a lack of journal access was the primary reason for turning to Sci-Hub, about 17% picked simple convenience as their top motive and 23% reported doing so mainly because they objected to the profits publishers make—suggesting that many respondents in those two categories do have institutional journal access. Indeed, on a separate question, about 37% of those who had obtained a pirated journal article through Sci-Hub or other means said they did have traditional forms of access.

The data don’t prove that Sci-Hub threatens established publishers. But Elsevier’s offensive against the site continues. Last week, on the same day Science’s feature came out, another of Sci-Hub’s domains was taken down as a result of a lawsuit the publisher filed against the pirate website. The repository remains online in several other places, however. Its persistence helps explain another survey result: About 62% of the survey takers believe Sci-Hub will disrupt the traditional science publishing industry.

An interactive version of these results, including the “Other” answers to question 5 is available here.