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Online tools enable unprecedented access to science research

21 December 2017

Legal and illegal sources of paywalled journal articles are aiding researchers and undermining subscription models.

Science journals
Many researchers are finding it easier to find studies through free web-based tools rather than via print or online journal subscriptions. Credit: Selena N. B. H., CC BY 2.0

When Vincent Larivière recently needed access to a 1983 paper from the journal Scientometrics, he started by logging on to his institution’s online subscription. The online archives associated with the subscription didn’t go back that far. Not a problem. In a few seconds, he found the paper on Sci-Hub, a site that illegally hosts millions of paywalled scientific papers. “No library has ever had all the world’s scholarly journal content, but Sci-Hub is pretty close,” says Larivière, an information scientist at the University of Montreal.

Despite much of academic literature being paywalled, the reality today is that those who want access without paying can usually get it. A recent (freely available) analysis in PeerJ Preprints found that Sci-Hub, which was created by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan in 2011, contains 85% of all scholarly paywalled content and 96% of paywalled papers that have been cited since 2015. For those uncomfortable pirating research papers, several new services instantly scour preprint servers, institutional repositories, and other sources for legally available versions of a desired study.

The surge in openness is a boon for many academics, but it’s an alarming trend for subscription publishers. Even as companies sue sites like Sci-Hub to protect their intellectual property, they recognize that they have little recourse. “I see limited reason to expect anyone to roll this back to old-fashioned institutional access control,” says Bernd Pulverer, head of scientific publications at the European Molecular Biology Organization in Heidelberg, Germany. “Rather, publishers will have to use this as an opportunity to find viable solutions for minimal-friction access to the peer-reviewed published literature.” Many publishers have already adopted open-access subscription models to various degrees (see Physics Today, May 2017, page 24).

The physical sciences are getting hit especially hard by pirating. The PeerJ Preprints study, authored by University of Pennsylvania data scientist Daniel Himmelstein and colleagues, found that the American Physical Society is the most pirated publisher on Sci-Hub, with 99.9% of its scholarly content freely available to read and download. Chemistry is the most pirated discipline, with more than 92% of its literature on Sci-Hub; physics and astronomy are not far behind at 89%.

Toll-access publishers have responded. In June, a US district court ordered Sci-Hub to pay Dutch publishing giant Elsevier $15 million in damages for copyright infringement. Last month, another district court demanded that internet service providers and search engines block access to Sci-Hub and ordered the site to pay the American Chemical Society (ACS) $4.8 million.

Alexandra Elbakyan
Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan speaks at Harvard University in 2010. Credit: Apneet Jolly, CC BY 2.0

But Elbakyan, who operates the site abroad from outside both courts’ jurisdictions, has publicly said she plans to ignore the court orders. It’s also unclear how successful ACS will be in getting internet providers to block Sci-Hub; in 2015, a US court demanded that Sci-Hub be shut down, but the site resurfaced using different domains. Last month, Sci-Hub reportedly lost three of its domains but continued pointing people to other ways of using the service. And the court verdict in the ACS case applies only to the US, even though Sci-Hub has users all over the world, according to a 2016 analysis by Science.

Sci-Hub isn’t the only platform bothering subscription publishers. Another is the popular academic social networking site ResearchGate, which recently raised more than $100 million in venture capital. In October, Elsevier and ACS filed a lawsuit against ResearchGate in a German regional court, alleging copyright infringement. The move follows long-standing concerns that ResearchGate facilitates the illicit uploading of paywalled papers despite the site’s intellectual property policy stating that the site’s users should upload papers only if they have the appropriate copyright license to do so. In response, ResearchGate has so far removed 1.7 million papers from its platform.

Browser-based alternatives

Even as publishers try to fend off Sci-Hub and others, they also have to deal with alternatives that may eventually make pirating unnecessary. The Web-browser extension Unpaywall is by far the most popular, having attracted more than 100 000 active users worldwide since its prerelease in March. The tool is used around 75 000 times a day, according to developers Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar, who cofounded the nonprofit firm ImpactStory in Vancouver, Canada.

When an Unpaywall user lands on a paywalled paper, the tool automatically taps into its back-end database, which indexes around 90 million documents, to see if the paper is freely and legally available. A recent study coauthored by Priem and Piwowar found that nearly half the papers accessed by users are legally free to read somewhere online. This may be at an institutional repository, a preprint server, or a hard-to-reach publisher site. More than 700 libraries worldwide, including the British Library and the University of California, use Unpaywall’s database, says Priem.

According to the study by Himmelstein and colleagues, Unpaywall’s database and Sci-Hub together have more than 94% of the papers requested by Unpaywall users. “Combining the licit and illicit services probably provides better access than any university library,” Himmelstein says.

Because the code underlying Unpaywall’s database is free and open for anyone to use or build on, other powerful research-scouring tools have adapted it to expand their reach. One such tool is the newly launched browser plug-in Kopernio, which trawls for papers in its users’ institutional libraries as well as other free and legal repositories. The process works with a single click, even if the user is working off-campus without a virtual private network.

Another option is the four-year-old Open Access Button, which also allows users to email authors when it can’t find the free version of a paper or its underlying data. Other tools—such as a chatbot that helps find open articles on mobile phones—are also in development, says Open Access Button cofounder Joseph McArthur, who is assistant director of the Right to Research Coalition, a policy advocacy group in London.

Until September, Unpaywall included a setting that allowed users to filter out results from what the tool called “less trusted sources.” That included ResearchGate and another academic social networking site called But following feedback from its users, Priem and Piwowar pulled the plug on both sites. Kopernio still finds content on both sites, according to cofounder Peter Vincent, who is a reader in aeronautics at Imperial College London. He notes, however, that the widget will first try to find papers in institutional libraries and open-access journal sites before loading the ResearchGate PDF. “It’s all about getting you the best available version with one click from any start point,” Vincent says. The Open Access Button, on the other hand, avoids both sites.

Strategic subscriptions 

In 2014, Larivière’s University of Montreal decided that it could no longer afford to pay big sums for journal subscription packages. So the school made some big cancellations, pointing its users to Unpaywall as an alternative.

Working with Larivière, the university carried out hefty bibliometric analyses and consulted with community members to determine which journals were most vital. Ultimately, fewer than 6000 journals—only 12% of the institution’s original subscription total—were deemed important enough to continue buying, says University of Montreal director of libraries Richard Dumont.

While this year has illustrated the inevitability of openness in scientific publishing, the future is unclear—both for academic publishers and for the tools threatening those publishers’ bottom lines. Since most, if not all, scholarly content is likely to eventually become freely available, the need for tools providing access to literature is likely to fade out. Still, says Jon Tennant, the director of communications for the professional networking site ScienceOpen in Berlin: “Tools like Unpaywall will still be needed as long as legacy publishers hold on to this content, which they will do for as long as they possibly can.”

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