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Illegal downloads: copyright theft or promotion of science?

As the debate about access to scientific data and research rumbles on, scientists across the globe are increasingly turning to illegally downloaded sources as one-stop repositories for scientific literature.

As John Bohannaon recently reported in Science magazine, the use of large databases that circumvent copyright law is not limited to developing countries with potentially poorer access to official channels, but is now prevalent in academic and research institutions across both sides of the Atlantic. As well as cost, users cite convenience, speed and reliability among their reasons for choosing to use sites such as Sci-Hub, which has upwards of 3 million users. Meanwhile publishers fight to protect their copyright, including through the courts.

Sci-Hub hosts 50 million documents, including open-access articles – lending further weight to the theory that many users are opting for the convenience of a ‘one-stop-shop’ to save time, rather than only searching the database for articles that are behind official paywalls elsewhere. Some users of such databases feel justified in their actions by what they view as excessively high prices charged by some journals to access articles. In fact, support from researchers themselves is also claimed to come in the form of researchers volunteering their official log-in details for online journal sites to Sci-Hub. Publishers counter that there are multiple legal channels for access, including cheaper or cost-free methods for researchers in developing countries.

Despite legal injunctions, these large illegal databases continue to operate and have in fact been duplicated in their entirety by users, leading some experts to call for copyright holders to consider alternative tactics, including improving access for those who cannot afford high subscription costs. Opinion seems to be split though on whether sites such as Sci-Hub will push publishers to a more open-access model, or cause them to shy away from this model further.

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Summary by Hannah Mace, MSc from Aspire Scientific.

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