In this investigative news piece from Science, contributing correspondent John Bohannon dives into data from Sci-Hub, the world's largest pirate website for scholarly literature. For the first time, basic questions about Sci-Hub's millions of users can be answered: Where are they and what are they reading? Bohannon's statistical analysis is based on server log data supplied by Alexandra Elbakyan herself, the neuroscientist who created Sci-Hub in 2011. After establishing contact with her through an encrypted chat system, Bohannon and Elbakyan worked together to create a data set for public release: 28 million Sci-Hub download requests going back to 1 September 2015, including the digital object identifier (DOI) for every paper and the clustered locations of users based on their Internet Protocol address. In his story, Bohannon reveals that Sci-Hub usage is highest in China with 4.4 million download requests over the 6-month period, followed by India and Iran. But Sci-Hub users are not limited to the developing world, he reports; the U.S. is the fifth largest downloader and some of the most intense Sci-Hub activity seems to be happening on US and European university campuses, supporting the claim that many users could be accessing the papers through their libraries, but turn to Sci-Hub for convenience. The papers downloaded are on all scientific topics, and even include copies of open access papers from the Public Library of Science and elsewhere, "perhaps due to confusion on the part of users." Bohannon highlights the October 2015 court ruling in which a New York judge decreed that Sci-Hub infringes on the publisher Elsevier's legal rights as the copyright holder of its journal content, ordering that it desist. "The injunction has had little effect, as the server data reveal," Bohannon writes. The site continues to grow. Elbakyan declined to explain exactly how she obtains the papers. The story includes interviews with Sci-Hub users and additional insights and reflections from publishers and university librarians, among others. It also includes a detailed map of U.S. Sci-Hub usage and, online, an interactive global map where one can view the number of downloads and most read paper for 24,000 locations around the world.
In an Editorial in the same issue, "My love-hate of Sci-Hub," the Editor-in-Chief of the Science family of Journals, Marcia McNutt, notes that while she recognizes the merit of Sci-Hub's aim - bringing research content to scientists in the developing world - gathering papers illegally in this way can undermine critical pillars of the scientific community. For example, McNutt highlights the way in which an author's article usage statistics -- increasingly important to assessing his or her paper's impact -- are not captured at Sci-Hub. She notes that libraries who perceive a lack of interest in a journal because that title's downloads decrease as users go to Sci-Hub instead may drop their subscriptions, likely useful to many other members of the institution. As institutions cancel subscriptions, she says, the ability of nonprofit scientific societies to provide journals and support their research communities is diminished. Journals published by scientific societies are not the sole contribution to the research community; such nonprofit societies also support a range of efforts that have a history of benefiting the greater scientific enterprise, such as fellowships for young scientists, advocacy for science, and science education. McNutt reminds readers that journals have real costs, many of which help to communicate science broadly, and with digital publishing being just as costly as print, in some cases. Scientific nonprofit societies do indeed understand the need to continue addressing research accessibility by those in challenged regions, she says, but the goal is to do so through legitimate means that in turn support the broader scientific community.