Tag Archives: John Bohannon

Science (magazine) investigates Sci-Hub (a pirate site for scientific papers)

Sci-Hub, a pirate website for scientific papers, and its progenitor, Alexandra Elbakyan, have generated a couple of articles and an editorial in Science magazine’s latest issue (April 28, 2016?). An April 29, 2016 article by Bob Yirka for phys.org describes one of the articles (Note: Links have been removed),

A correspondent for the Science family of journals has published an investigative piece in Science on Sci-Hub, a website that illegally publishes scholarly literature, i.e. research papers. In his article, John Bohannon describes how he made contact with Alexandra Elbakyan, the founder of what is now the world’s largest site for pirated scholarly articles, data she gave him, and commentary on what was revealed. Bohannon has also published another piece focused exclusively on Elbakyan, describing her as a frustrated science student. Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of the Science Family also weighs in on her “love-hate” relationship with Sci-Hub, and explains in detail why she believes the site is likely to cause problems for scholarly publishing heading into the future.

An April 28, 2016 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) news release provides some detail about the number of downloads from the Sci-Hub site,

In this investigative news piece from Science, contributing correspondent John Bohannon dives into data from Sci-Hub, the world’s largest pirate website for scholarly literature. For the first time, basic questions about Sci-Hub’s millions of users can be answered: Where are they and what are they reading? Bohannon’s statistical analysis is based on server log data supplied by Alexandra Elbakyan herself, the neuroscientist who created Sci-Hub in 2011. After establishing contact with her through an encrypted chat system, Bohannon and Elbakyan worked together to create a data set for public release: 28 million Sci-Hub download requests going back to 1 September 2015, including the digital object identifier (DOI) for every paper and the clustered locations of users based on their Internet Protocol address. In his story, Bohannon reveals that Sci-Hub usage is highest in China with 4.4 million download requests over the 6-month period, followed by India and Iran. But Sci-Hub users are not limited to the developing world, he reports; the U.S. is the fifth largest downloader and some of the most intense Sci-Hub activity seems to be happening on US and European university campuses, supporting the claim that many users could be accessing the papers through their libraries, but turn to Sci-Hub for convenience.

Bohanon’s piece appears to be open access. Here’s a link and a citation,

Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone by John Bohannon. Science (2016). DOI: 10.1126/science.aaf5664 Published April 28, 2016.


The analysis of the data is fascinating but I’m not sure why this is being billed as an ‘investigative’ piece. Generally speaking I would expect an investigative piece to unearth new information which has likely been hidden. At the very least, I would expect some juicy inside information (i.e., gossip).

Bohannon certainly had no difficulty getting information (from the April 28, 2016 Science article),

For someone denounced as a criminal by powerful corporations and scholarly societies, Elbakyan was surprisingly forthcoming and transparent. After establishing contact through an encrypted chat system, she worked with me over the course of several weeks to create a data set for public release: every download event over the 6-month period starting 1 September 2015, including the digital object identifier (DOI) for every paper. To protect the privacy of Sci-Hub users, we agreed that she would first aggregate users’ geographic locations to the nearest city using data from Google Maps; no identifying internet protocol (IP) addresses were given to me. (The data set and details on how it was analyzed are freely accessible)

Why would it be surprising that someone who has made a point of freeing scientific research and making it accessible also makes the data from her Sci-Hub site freely available? The action certainly seems consistent with her raison d’être.

Bohannon steers away from making any serious criticisms of the current publishing régimes although he does mention a few bones of contention while laying them to rest, more or less. This is no great surprise since he’s writing for one of the ‘big three’, a journal that could be described as having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. (For those who are unaware, there are three journal considered the most prestigious or high impact for scientific studies: Nature, Cell, and Science.)

Characterizing Elbakyan as a ‘frustrated’ student in an April 28, 2016 profile by John Bohannon (The frustrated science student behind Sci-Hub) seems a bit dismissive. Sci-Hub may have been borne of frustration but it is an extraordinary accomplishment.

The piece has resulted in at least one very irate librarian, John Dupuis, from an April 29, 2016 posting on his Confessions of a Science Librarian blog,

Overall, the articles are pretty good descriptions of the Sci-Hub phenomenon and relatively even-handed [emphasis mine], especially coming from one of the big society publishers like AAAS.

There was one bit in the main article, Who’s downloading pirated papers? Everyone, that really stuck in my craw. Basically, Sci-Hub — and all that article piracy — is librarians’ fault.

And for all the researchers at Western universities who use Sci-Hub instead, the anonymous publisher lays the blame on librarians for not making their online systems easier to use and educating their researchers. “I don’t think the issue is access—it’s the perception that access is difficult,” he says.

Fortunately it was countered, in the true “give both sides of the story” style of mainstream journalism, by another quote, this time from a librarian.

“I don’t agree,” says Ivy Anderson, the director of collections for the California Digital Library in Oakland, which provides journal access to the 240,000 researchers of the University of California system. The authentication systems that university researchers must use to read subscription journals from off campus, and even sometimes on campus with personal computers, “are there to enforce publisher restrictions,” she says.

But of course, I couldn’t let it go. Anderson’s response is perfectly fine but somehow there just wasn’t enough rage and exasperation in it. So I stewed about it over night and tweeted up a tweetstorm of rage this morning, with the idea that if the rant was well-received I would capture the text as part of a blog post.

As you may have guessed by my previous comments, I didn’t find the article quite as even-handed as Dupuis did. As for the offence to librarians, I did notice but it seems in line with the rest of the piece which dismisses, downplays, and offloads a few serious criticisms while ignoring how significant issues (problematic peer review process,  charging exorbitant rates for access to publicly funded research, failure to adequately tag published papers that are under review after serious concerns are raised, failure to respond in a timely fashion when serious concerns are raised about a published paper, positive publication bias, …) have spawned the open access movement and also Sci-Hub. When you consider that governments rely on bibliometric data such as number of papers published and number of papers published in high impact journals (such as one of the ‘big three’), it’s clear there’s a great deal at stake.

Other Sci-Hub pieces here

My last piece about Sci-Hub was a February 25, 2016 posting titled,’ Using copyright to shut down easy access to scientific research‘ featuring some of the discussion around Elsevier and its legal suite against Sci-Hub.

Highlighting the 2011 Dance Your Ph.D. contest

Science magazine (published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science [AAAS]) has been holding a Dance Your PhD contest since 2008* (as best I can determine from a Sept. 17, 2010 posting by Katherine for SciFri). In any case, this year they received a record number of entries (from an Oct. 14, 2011 posting by John Bohannon on Science Now),

Have you ever wondered what nanotube chemistry might look like as a dance? Or fruit fly sex? Or protein x-ray crystallography? Look no further. As part of the 2011 Dance Your Ph.D. contest, scientists who study those phenomena and more have converted their research into dance videos for your enjoyment and edification. And today the 16 finalists of this annual contest are revealed below.

A record 55 dances were created for this year’s contest, submitted by scientists around the globe, from the United States and Canada to Europe, India, and Australia. As the contest rules state, each dance must be based on the scientist’s own Ph.D. research thesis, and that scientist must participate in the dance. For many of the graduate students who danced, the research they depicted is still ongoing. For some of the older contestants, the project is a distant, perhaps harrowing memory from their early days in science. The dances are divided into four categories based on subject: physics, chemistry, biology, and social science. (The criteria for those categories are explained here.)

One of this year’s finalists is from the DeRosa lab at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. Titled, “DNA Aptamers as a Tool for Studying Mental Health Disease.” Erin McConnell and her troop are featured in the video below,

DNA Aptamers as a Tool for Studying Mental Health Disease from Erin McConnell on Vimeo.

I haven’t had time to review the other finalists but given this one, I can hardly wait.

The DeRosa lab also had a finalist in last year’s Dance Your PhD contest. It’s not the only reason I contacted the lab’s leader, Maria DeRosa but it did add a piquant flavour to my interview with her, which I will be posting tomorrow (Oct. 25, 2011).

*ETA Oct 24, 2011 1500 hours: There is an Oct. 18, 2011 article by Bob Weber for the Globe and Mail newspaper about the Canadian finalists in the 2011 Dance Your PhD contest. The contest was informally created in 2007 according to its originator John Bohannon.