Scholarly pirate libraries – what is their impact?

Do you remember Napster, Grokster, Kazaa and all the other P2P networks? In OpenUP Pilot 7 we explore the causes of scholarly black markets & the impact of shadow libraries on the production & circulation of science.

Do you remember Napster? Grokster, Kazaa, the Pirate Bay and all the other peer-to-peer networks? They appeared in the early 2000’s because there was a huge need for digital music, but there was little legal supply, and whenever there is an imbalance between supply and demand, there is a good chance that black markets will emerge. But peer-to-peer (P2P) piracy did more than just highlighting some of the shortcomings of the legal markets, such as the outdated business model based on selling individual mp3s with Digital Rights Management (DRM), the too high price, the small size of legally available catalog, or the overuse of DRM. Due to their resiliency, pirate networks were able to force a change in the legal ways of digital music distribution. For a while, music industry was trying to sell music by the track, and resisted the idea that music could also be a service, where ad financed free, or subscription based cheap services could provide access to all the music of the world, 24/7, on multiple devices, everywhere where there is internet. Piracy, in this context, showed not just the problems with legal markets, but also pointed out a solution, and consequently shifted the way music is made accessible on the internet.

It took some time, but ultimately academics and students of higher education also joined the piracy fold. During the lastdecade,a number of highly valuable piratical text collections popped up on the net, offering free, though copyright infringing access to textbooks, scholarly monographs, works of natural and social sciences, philosophy, history, etc.[1] The same thing happened in the domain of academic journals, where Sci-Hub offers infringing access to all the paywalled articles ever published.[2] So we must ask again the two questions we asked in the case of music piracy: what are the causes of scholarly black markets?And even more relevant in the context of the OpenUP project: what will be the impact of these shadow libraries on the production and circulation of science?

Take a look at the following three animations, which show the use of one of the shadow libraries over the course of several months:




They show the daily volume of downloads from one of the biggest digital pirate libraries on earth. Compare them to the downloads from Sci-Hub[3]. There are a few things to notice. First, that the use of pirate libraries is as prevalent in rich western countries in Europe and North America as in the developing world. On the surface this is rather surprising: the USA, the UK, and western European countries have the highest per capita GDP, the best higher education and research institutions, a dense library network, cheap or even free Amazon delivery, growing number of e-book purchase and lending options, in other words, an excellent legal access infrastructure. Legal options seem to be abundant, but then this fact makes the question even more exciting: what is the reason behind academic piracy?


We are exploring multiple explanations, using micro and macro level variables. Can we explain the piracy of books by looking at their price, the electronic availability, or the distance of the nearest library where it is to be found?[4] Can we explain piracy by the percentage of GDP a country invests in its higher education, and research? Can we find correlations between various variables on cultural consumption and the use of pirate libraries?

We expect different answers to these question depending on whether you ask them at the center or at the periphery. There are multiple peripheries we are exploring. In western countries, an increasing amount of scholarly activity takes place beyond the gates of the extremely rich academic institutions which enjoy good access to scholarly materials. The popularity of massive online open courses (MOOCs), a form of distant education, a network of institutions with more modest budgets (such as community colleges), and discourses taking place outside of academic institutions, in activist circles, NGOs, etc. increase the demand for scholarly materials amongst those who do not have appropriate institutional access despite living in the richest western countries. In addition, subscription prices stretch even the stellar budgets of top-notch institutions in an unsustainable manner. The extensive use of pirate libraries in the West is a warning that behind the rosy surface of the flourishing Western higher education, there are growing gaps in access, which are increasingly difficult to hide.

The second question we try to answer is the following: what factors explain shadow library use in developing countries, the other major source of demand for shadow libraries? We know that there both the dynamics of changes in higher education and the conditions of access are substantially different from what is happening in the west[5]. The growing middle class produces a mass inflow into higher education, but without the expansion of state resources that accompanied similar growth in the West a few decades earlier. In addition, conditions of access both electronic and print are more limited, if for no other reason than both individuals and institutions are operating on lower budgets than their western counterparts. In other words, on the surface it seems relatively easy to explain why people in the global South are avid users of such libraries. But there are dynamics that are much harder to recognize and contextualize. For example it requires the close cooperation of scholars in developing and developed countries to maintain and feed shadow libraries[6]. How does that coordination take place? What happens to the locally produced scholarly knowledge? How can we explain the differences in the knowledge diets of different countries?


The second set of questions we are exploring in Pilot 7 is the potential impact of scholarly black markets on scholarly publishing, and academia in general. It is clear that there are huge changes both in academia and scholarly publishing. Academia is going through a process of quantification, where the worth of both scholars and universities is being measured and assessed through the newly produced numbers on their activities. Academics, and institutions are increasingly dependent upon the exactly measured performance metrics for their assessment: citation metrics, H-indices, world rankings made academic performance measurable, comparable. The biggest academic publishers already made huge investments into this data market, and through the control of such platforms as, Mendeley, SSRN, and the likes they are increasingly in the position to collect, organize, analyze and package, and sell data on individual and institutional performance.

On the other hand, we see only limited efforts from the same publishers to pursue scholarly piracy in the same aggressive vein as the music industry cracked down on music piracy a decade earlier. There are no billion-dollar lawsuits, there are no high profile court cases, and it seems that the few ongoing cases, such as the one in a New York court against Sci-Hub[7] are pursued only to maintain an appearance.

Take these developments together, and add to them the fact that both in the US and in the EU scholarly research is mandated to be accessible under open access. In this context, it is easy to imagine that in the mid-term, in the strategy of publishers the exclusive-access, and copyright based business model plays less and less a role, and they hope to replace access revenues with revenues from the data markets, and open access processing fees. It is easy to imagine that the current logics of academic publishing are slowly coming to an end, and we see the rise of a new era, where scholarly works are as cheap and easy to access as music. The fact that publishers do not really try to fight piracy may reflect the understanding that it is close to impossible to root out copyright infringement, and if that is the case, scholarly publishing also has to adapt. The current logics of scholarly piracy will help us better understand the forthcoming changes.





[1] Bodó, Balázs. 2018. “The Genesis of Library Genesis: The Birth of a Global Scholarly Shadow Library.” In Shadow Libraries - Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education, ed. Joe Karaganis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.



[4] Bodó, Balázs. 2018. “Library Genesis in Numbers: Mapping the Underground Flow of Knowledge.” In Shadow Libraries - Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education, ed. Joe Karaganis. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[5] Karaganis, Joe, ed. 2018. Shadow Libraries - Access to Knowledge in Global Higher Education. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

[6] Bodó, Balázs, Pirates in the Library – An Inquiry into the Guerilla Open Access Movement (July 6, 2016). Paper prepared for the 8th Annual Workshop of the International Society for the History and Theory of Intellectual Property, CREATe, University of Glasgow, UK, July 6-8, 2016.. Available at SSRN: or



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