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What will future historians see as the major Russian contribution to early 21st-century Internet culture? It might not be troll farms and other strategies for poisoning public conversation — but rather, the democratization of access to scientific and scholarly knowledge. Over the last decade, Russian academics and activists have built free, remarkably comprehensive online archives of scholarly works. What Napster was to music, the Russian shadow libraries are to knowledge.

Much of the current attention to these libraries focuses on Sci-Hub, a huge online library created by Kazakhstan-based graduate student Aleksandra Elbakyan. Started in 2011, Sci-Hub has made freely available an archive of over 60 million articles, drawn primarily from paywalled databases of major scientific publishers. Its audience is massive and global. In 2017, the service provided nearly 200 million downloads. Because most scholars in high-income countries already have paid access to the major research databases through their university libraries, its main beneficiaries are students and faculty from middle- and low-income countries, who frequently do not.

Such underground flows of knowledge from more- to less-privileged universities are not new. But they used to depend on slower and less-reliable networks, such as developing-world students and faculty traveling to and from Western universities, bringing back photocopies and later hard drives full of scholarly work. Sci-Hub scaled this process up to meet the demand of an increasingly interconnected global scientific community, where the first barrier to participation was access to research.

Why Russia?

Academic copying and sharing has created shadow libraries all over the world. But only the Russian versions have grown into large-scale global libraries. This was not an accident. From the 1960s on, Russian intellectual life depended heavily on clandestine copying and distribution of texts — on the “samizdat” networks that distributed uncensored literature and news. The fall of communism ended censorship. But it also left Russian readers, libraries and publishers impoverished, trading political constraints for economic ones.

The arrival of cheap scanners and computers fueled the growth of new self-organized libraries. By the second half of the 1990s, the Russian Internet — RuNet — was awash in book digitization projects run by intellectuals, activists and other bibliophiles. Texts migrated from print to digital and sometimes back again. Efforts to consolidate these projects also sprung up by the dozens. Such digital librarianship was the antithesis of official Soviet book culture, as it was free, bottom-up, democratic and uncensored. It also provided a modicum of cultural agency to Russian intellectuals amid the economic ruin of the 1990s.

The big Russian shadow libraries emerged from this mix of clandestine librarianship, economic crisis, technological change and — at the state level — regulatory incapacity. By the early 2000s, these shadow librarians had digitized much of the highest-value Russian scientific and literary work. By the mid 2000s, the largest of these efforts had consolidated into an archive called Library Genesis, or LibGen.

LibGen equated survival with redundancy, and so made both its collection and its software available to others. Almost anyone could clone the library, and many did. By the late 2000s, the most prominent was the Gigapedia (later called Library.nu), which began to build a large English-language collection. When a copyright lawsuit by Western publishers took down the Gigapedia in 2012, its collection was re-assimilated into LibGen.

Sci-Hub was built around similar principles. When a user requested an article, Sci-Hub automatically downloaded that article from publisher databases, using borrowed faculty credentials.* Sci-Hub then archived the article with LibGen, to fulfill any subsequent requests.

Now, Sci-Hub has its own archive, and LibGen serves as a backup. According to Elbakyan, the complete archive has been copied many times.

But what about the legal implications?

Much of this activity violates U.S. and international copyright law. In June 2017, a New York district court awarded $15 million to Elsevier, one of the handful of publishers that control most of the world’s academic journals, in its lawsuit against Sci-Hub and LibGen. This hasn’t stopped either service. But the legal pressure has forced Sci-Hub to periodically change hosting services and access methods. None of the LibGen administrators are named in the suit, but Elbakyan could face criminal charges if she travels to the United States.

All this has amplified academia’s ongoing and intensifying debate about publishing ethics. Many academics regard their work as part of an open, cumulative and universal human project. Taxpayer dollars support a large amount of academic research, so much so that both the United States and European Union have open access requirements for publicly funded work — although they have not yet fully figured out how to fund that requirement. Some Western academics have been boycotting publishers viewed as profiting unreasonably from their role as middlemen between academics and their own scholarship.

What comes next?

The U.S. and European open access mandates point to a future that looks a lot like a legal Sci-Hub: cheap, open and all you can eat. And this future appears to be getting closer. In mid-May, the largest Swedish university library consortium dropped its contract with Elsevier, objecting to the price of database access. Universities have taken similar actions in Germany and France. In practice, libraries have more leverage in these negotiations because of Sci-Hub, which offers researchers a back channel to Elsevier-published articles.

As with the music industry, it’s possible that the publishers themselves will provide these better services and thereby marginalize their pirate competitors. As with music, publishers are learning that controlling the platform can be more lucrative than owning the content — a shift that has underwritten a variety of publisher experiments with open or hybrid access models. It’s also possible that the combination of legal pressure abroad and an increasingly repressive Russian state will break the online and personal networks that sustain the Sci-Hub/LibGen ecosystem.

In the meantime, the Russian shadow libraries will continue to support the global research community, shift the balance of power between libraries and publishers, and — perhaps most important — raise faculty and students’ expectations about what meaningful access to knowledge entails, which publishers and universities will need to evolve to meet.

They will, in short, keep the pressure on to find legal ways to expand access for the tens of millions of new students and researchers entering global higher education.

* UPDATE: Several publishers allege that Sci-Hub relies on the “phishing” of credentials from unwitting faculty and students, not on voluntary contributions. We’ve found voluntarism to be very common in these networks and have seen little public evidence to support the phishing claim. Elbakyan has denied phishing, but has left the door open to the possibility of third-party phished contributions. A mixed model is certainly possible.

Joe Karaganis (@jjkaraganis) is vice president at the American Assembly, a public policy institute at Columbia University, and editor of “Shadow Libraries: Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education” (MIT Press, 2018), downloadable free.  

Balazs Bodo (@bodobalazs) is a senior research scientist at the Institute for Information Law, University of Amsterdam.

This article is one in a series supported by the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Opening Governance that seeks to work collaboratively to increase our understanding of how to design more effective and legitimate democratic institutions using new technologies and new methods. Neither the MacArthur Foundation nor the network is responsible for the article’s specific content. Other posts can be found here.