What is the Price to Pay for Sci-Hub’s “Free” Articles

Accessing illegally downloaded material from a pirated-content website still comes at a cost

4 min read

Kathy Pretz is the editor in chief of The Institute, IEEE's member publication

Illustration of a flashlight trained on multiple people stealing articles.
Illustration: iStockphoto

THE INSTITUTENone of us wants to pay for things if we can get them for free. But what if an item were stolen? Would you still take it? Most people would say no, unless they’re Sci-Hub users.

Researchers and students around the world are using the pirated-content website to download for free any of more than 50 million research articles, monographs, and book chapters that Sci-Hub obtained illegally. The material originated at science, technology, and medical (STM) publishers—including not-for-profit ones.

Articles from IEEE are on the website, as well as ones from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Chemical Society, Elsevier, the Institute of Physics, Oxford University Press, and the Royal Society of Chemistry. IEEE’s content is the third most downloaded, according to an analysis by Science magazine.

Elsevier has filed a lawsuit in U.S. federal court in New York.

“The intellectual property has been stolen from not just commercial publishers but also from not-for-profit publishers like IEEE as well as university presses,” says Fran Zappulla, senior director of IEEE Publishing Operations.


Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, launched Sci-Hub in 2011 for what she likely believes were good intentions. She wanted everyone, especially researchers in developing countries, to “freely share in scientific advancement,” she said. The problem is Sci-Hub contains copyrighted material that has been illegally obtained.

“Sci-Hub would not exist were it not for the work of IEEE and other publishers,” says Renny Guida, IEEE’s director of product management, whose area oversees the IEEE Xplore Digital Library.

According to news reports, Sci-Hub discovered vulnerabilities related to institutional subscriptions to STM publishers’ digital libraries, which are the primary source for content. And some people who support Elbakyan’s cause willingly gave their sign-on names and passwords.

The analysis by Science of Sci-Hub’s 28 million download requests, made over a seven-month period, showed that researchers and students from developed as well as developing countries used the site. Released in April, the study showed that between September 2015 and March 2016, people in China, India, and Iran downloaded the most articles, but even users in areas where legitimate, paid access is likely available were frequent visitors. In the United States, the most downloads came from California, New York, and Virginia.

“People who are accessing articles through Sci-Hub are free riding on the backs of legitimate users, who pay the costs,” Guida says. “But nothing comes for free. Maintaining a quality publishing program and hosting that content on a robust and reliable platform is only sustainable when libraries, organizations, and individual researchers pay to subscribe to it.”


Modern publishing services—including the infrastructure that supports the thousands of volunteers in the peer-review and editorial processes, as well as convenient online delivery—are expensive.

Costs can include those associated with building and maintaining a Web-based system that lets authors submit their papers at any time, Zappulla notes. There are also content management systems that keep track of articles as they’re submitted, peer-reviewed, and revised to provide critical feedback to authors and further the scholarly publishing process. Copy editing, text formatting, and graphics processing take place before a manuscript is finally published and uploaded to a digital library.

“Whether they are on the Web or in print, authors still want their articles to be easily discovered and read and to look good,” Zappulla says. “None of that is without cost.”

And for IEEE there’s the cost of keeping its platform, the IEEE Xplore Digital Library, running at the state of the art.

Added to those investments is the cost of archiving the material to “ensure the content will be available for posterity, no matter what happens,” Guida says. “The costs of continuing to create and develop the outstanding scholarly journals that IEEE and other STM publishers have introduced over the years must be covered.” Revenue from traditional subscriptions pays for those services, Zappulla says.


IEEE and most scientific publishers have several pricing levels and multiple options available so that researchers who don’t have much money may access documents. Also, most scientific and technical publishers offer special pricing to academic consortia. For example, schools that don’t have graduate programs but need at least some content pay a significantly discounted price, Guida says.

IEEE also notes an important part of its mission is to make its scholarly articles widely available. Accordingly, it offers some for free. With such open-access articles, the authors—or their funding organizations—pay the processing fees. In addition, IEEE allows authors to post the accepted versions of their manuscripts on their own websites and on their institutions’ or employers’ websites.

“IEEE has also broadened its offerings to include publications that only publish open-access articles,” Zappulla says. “Today, almost all our journals have a mix of traditional subscription-funded articles and ones that are open access.”

There’s also IEEE Access, an open-access multidisciplinary journal that publishes articles across all of IEEE’s fields of interest.


Elbakyan and the people who maintain Sci-Hub apparently believe they are performing a service to researchers in developing areas. But they are likely to create a domino effect in which organizations wishing to help those researchers will not have the financial resources to do so.

For example, funds IEEE receives from the sale of its content are reinvested in humanitarian-related technology activities. These include community service projects that, for example, bring power and communications to underdeveloped areas, outreach activities to encourage interest in the engineering profession, career development resources for engineers, and conferences in remote regions of the world to enable engineers to share their ideas, collaborate, and introduce breakthrough technologies.

Further, the content on Sci-Hub is not regularly updated the way the material on the publishers’ digital libraries is. Those who download an IEEE standard from Sci-Hub, for example, could be accessing a version that is out of date—which could lead to glitches, major failures, and even safety concerns.

So if you happen to see colleagues or classmates about to download material from Sci-Hub, remind them how much those free articles might actually cost others.

This article appears in the September 2016 print issue as “‘Free’ Articles Are Anything but Free.”

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