Hacking libraries remain popular among academics

Academic publishers have been trying to shut down Sci-Hub for a long time, without the desired result. So far, it looks like the site's appeal is growing all the time.

A new study of thousands of researchers finds that the majority use pirated libraries to bypass paywalls. Lack of access is cited as the main reason, but, worryingly, many researchers find these pirated libraries easier to use than legitimate alternatives.


Offering free access to millions of paywalled research papers, Sci-Hub is often described as “The Pirate Bay of Science”.

The site is used by researchers from all over the world to obtain documents that they find difficult to access. For some, Sci-Hub is essential to their work.

Major academic publishers such as Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society see this pirated library as a direct threat to their business model. This has resulted in ongoing lawsuits, including two won by the publishers on default judgments in US courts.

Despite these court rulings and various orders to block websites in too many countries, Sci-Hub and the library's founder Alexandra Elbakyan are not backing down. Instead, the site has become a household name in many academic institutions, where open access to research is valued more than copyright protection.

A recent research study confirms this preference, while providing further insight into the prevalence of Sci-Hub usage. The aim of the study was to find out whether academics are willing to use pirate sites to bypass paywalled content and what their main motivations are.

The research

The study (paywalled of course), published in the scientific journal Information Development, shares the results of an international survey of more than 3.300 researchers. These academics come from various disciplines.

One of the main findings is that piracy is not the default option when academics are faced with a paywall. Finding an open access version is the most common option, followed by requesting a copy from colleagues at other universities.

Using pirated libraries, with Sci-Hub being the main example, is the third most popular option.

While pirate sites may not be the first choice for researchers trying to bypass paywalls, they are quite common. The researchers report that more than half of respondents (57%) use or have used pirated sites to access research.

The main reason to use Sci-Hub and other piracy portals is to bypass restrictions. However, the main motivation for nearly 18% of “pirates” is that pirated libraries are easier to use because of the authentication systems that legitimate alternatives have.

Perhaps even more worrying for publishers, 12% report that publishers take advantage of academics.

Looking more closely at the demographics, the researchers found that younger academics are more likely to use these libraries. The same is true for researchers at less affluent universities. This suggests that the problem is not going away anytime soon.

“We found that younger researchers are more willing to use pirated services. This may mean that younger scholars use pirated libraries as a natural part of their environment and as information retrieval tools. However, their older colleagues are more reluctant to use such services.”'

Of course, there are also many researchers who never use pirated sites. Their main motivation is that pirated libraries are considered unethical (46%), but a large percentage of scholars are simply unaware that they exist (36%).

Overall, the findings confirm that Sci-Hub and similar sites remain popular. Research shows that legal options for bypassing paywalls are preferred, but if knowledge is unavailable for any reason, most researchers will find their way to pirated libraries.

Segado-Boj, F., Martín-Quevedo, J., & Prieto-Gutiérrez, J. (2022). Jumping over the paywall: Strategies and motivations for scholarly piracy and other alternatives. Information Development. https://doi.org/10.1177/02666669221144429

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Sci-Hub, pirated libraries, Elsevier, Wiley

Written by giorgos

George still wonders what he's doing here ...

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