KOCHI (KERALA) - Sci-Hub is a pirate website which aims to "remove all barriers in the way of science".
It is with this lofty motto that the portal has provided mass access to tens of millions of research papers, creating a global fan base among students and researchers who cannot afford the high subscription fees or one-off payments involved in accessing them.
But Sci-Hub's continued ability to do so in India, home to its second-largest user base after China, now hinges on an ongoing case in Delhi which has generated widespread support from the academic community in India.
In December 2020, three leading global publishers, Elsevier, Wiley and American Chemical Society, filed a suit in the High Court of Delhi against Sci-Hub and Libgen, another file-sharing website. The publishers accused the sites of infringing their copyright and requested the authorities in India to block access to them.
"Pirate sites like Sci-Hub threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data," the publishers said in a media statement. "They compromise the security of libraries and higher education institutions to gain unauthorised access to scientific databases and other proprietary intellectual property, and illegally harvest journal articles and e-books," it added.
Set for its next hearing on Feb 10, a ruling in favour of Sci-Hub and Libgen could prompt wider acceptance of the two websites, impacting business models of academic publishers which depend significantly on subscription revenues.
The case has also gained traction because this is the first time Ms Alexandra Elbakyan, the 33-year-old Kazhak researcher and programmer who set up Sci-Hub in 2011, is being defended in court. A team of Indian lawyers, committed to the cause of open access, are working pro bono.
Ms Elbakyan, in an e-mail to The Straits Times, said that in cases abroad, she had no time to organise lawyers and was not even aware in many instances that the site had been sued. Sci-Hub and Libgen are blocked in several European countries on the grounds of "unlawful activity".
But courts in India could take a different view, given public interest exemptions in the country's Copyright Act of 1957, including one around "fair dealings" that allows reproduction of published literature for research and private use.
In 2016, the High Court of Delhi dismissed a suit filed by publishers, including Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press, against Rameshwari Photocopy Service, a Delhi store popular with students, as well as University of Delhi for infringing their copyright by photocopying and reproducing their publications. The ruling, which relied on the fair dealings clause, said copyright is "not an inevitable, divine, or natural right".
Ms Elbakyan's legal team told ST that their defence was also "rooted in principles of public interest" and argued that the fair dealing provision should "extend to facilitators of research such as Sci-Hub".
"In a country that finds it immensely challenging to secure meaningful access to latest scientific developments - owing to the skyrocketing prices of the journals which publish it, coupled with our own socio-economic realities - Sci-Hub's success would remove a major hindrance to scientific progress," the lawyers said in a statement.
Ms Elbakyan, known as the "Robin Hood of science", told Nature magazine last month that "open communication is a fundamental property of science and it makes scientific progress possible".
"Paywalled access prevents this," she said, listing her concern about scientific knowledge becoming the "private property of some corporation."
"That is a threat, and not Sci-Hub," added Ms Elbakyan, who was frustrated by restricted access to literature in her early 20s when she was researching brain-computer interfaces.
But there are those who are critical of the website and believe it poses a major risk.
A BBC report in March last year said the City of London police's Intellectual Property Crime Unit was concerned that students using the site could have their log-in credentials stolen and misused online to steal research papers. There have also been accusations that the website is linked to Russian intelligence.
But these are allegations Ms Elbakyan has dismissed. "Nobody has complained about their accounts being 'stolen' by Sci-Hub," she told ST. Ms Elbakyan said that soon after Sci-Hub was launched, she collected accounts on Internet forums where they had been posted and that she now receives library accounts by e-mail. She denied stealing them herself.
"Yes, the users perhaps are not aware that their accounts were published or sent to Sci-Hub, but there is nothing bad if Sci-Hub uses some account to download research papers, and users do not experience any harm," she said. "Hence, the phrase 'stolen' is not correct."
Besides raising these security concerns, an Elsevier spokesman told ST publishers incur costs and add value during the publishing process, which is recouped either through open access article publishing charges or through subscriptions. "While taxpayers fund research, they do not fund the publication of research," he added.
The cost for journals published by Elsevier includes that of "assessing 1.8 million submissions a year, managing the peer review process, including a network of 1.4 million reviewers and 24,000 editors, overseeing 2,650 journals and investing in technology platforms".
"The entire process is applied to the 560,000 articles we published in 2020. Yet, Elsevier's price per journal article remains the lowest among academic publishers," the spokesman said.
Elsevier also provides free access when "the need is greatest" and it "can make the biggest difference in a sustainable way". This is done through initiatives such as the one that allows Elsevier's authors to share their peer-reviewed, accepted manuscript on non-commercial personal homepages or blogs, within their institution, and with collaborators.
But Ms Elbakyan argues the costs of publishing are very small compared with those involved in research and can be covered by means other than a paywall. "The current approach does not keep in mind the interest of millions of people who are barred from science by high costs… The just and fair way is to allow free distribution of academic information online, just as Sci-Hub does," she said.
Ensuring open access is a priority even for academic institutes in developed countries. In June 2020, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology ended negotiations with Elsevier for a new journals contract because the institute felt the publisher was not able to present a proposal that aligned with its open access principles.
An adverse ruling from the court in Delhi blocking Sci-Hub and giving it an unlawful status could dissuade users in India from accessing it, even though tech-savvy ones may find ways to circumvent the ban. But a favourable ruling, said Ms Elbakyan, could open new opportunities for Sci-Hub to grow, with other countries possibly adopting a similar approach and acknowledging Sci-Hub as "legal".
"That was my goal from the beginning. Sci-Hub never intended to be a shadow project," she said.
"I thought in 2011 that Sci-Hub will be recognised as a legitimate project very soon, because researchers are using it and they obviously are not criminals. But recognition of that fact seems to take longer than I initially thought."
Like many Indian researchers, Ms Tejaswi Chhatwal, a 30-year-old doctoral student at Jawaharlal Nehru University, hopes Sci-Hub's raison d'etre is endorsed by the court.
She is one of seven social science researchers who have filed an intervention application in the court, with legal support from the Delhi-based Internet Freedom Foundation, flagging the adverse impact any decision to block Sci-Hub and Libgen will have on them and the wider academic community.
For many years, Ms Chhatwal, like most of her colleagues, has depended on the two websites for academic material found in journals which are not subscribed to by her university and which mostly remain beyond the financial reach of Indian students. It is a dependence that has further grown during the pandemic, with physical access to libraries cut off and institutional online access to journals being erratic as well as limited.
"There are a lot of struggles involved in remote access," Ms Chhatwal said. These include, for instance, limits set on the number of pages one can download in one go or having certain papers locked out of reach even in subscribed journals. Moreover, requesting the librarian to provide access to new journals is a process that, if successful, "could take weeks or even months".
"Sci-Hub and Libgen are way more reliable than anything being currently offered to us because they come without any attachments or paywall. The only time we don't have access is when they haven't managed to upload something we want," she told ST. "If they go away, my research would pretty much reach a dead end."