Photo/IllutrationThe Sci-Hub pirate website (Ryosuke Nonaka)

Academic papers were freely downloaded more than 1.27 million times in Japan last year from a “pirate” website, highlighting the growing reluctance to pay subscription fees for such publications, a study team said.

The team, comprising researchers from the University of the Ryukyus and Nagoya Gakuin University, said the study results showed that Japanese scientists are not the only ones who want to avoid paying the rising fees to view published research papers.

They said they found about 150 million downloads of academic papers from the site across the globe, including in China, India and the United States, in 2017.

The total financial damage suffered by publishers of the research papers remains unknown.

The site, called Sci-Hub, was reportedly set up in 2011 by a female scientist from Kazakhstan who was disgruntled over the expensive subscription fees required to view academic research papers.

She obtained IDs and passwords for publishers’ websites from collaborators at universities and other organizations that were official subscribers.

The Kazakh scientist then obtained the published academic papers and made them available for free downloads on the Sci-Hub site.

Shuhei Otani, a researcher of information systems and section chief of the University of the Ryukyus’ library, and his colleagues analyzed the history of downloads from the website.

The results showed that in 2017, 40,000 to 150,000 downloads of academic articles were made a month in Japan from the site, 2.7 times higher than the figure for around 2015.

Medical and biotechnology-related papers were the most downloaded. Articles published in the prestigious British science journal Nature were also popular, the analysis showed.

According to the Japan Association of National University Libraries, national universities paid about 11.9 billion yen ($104.64 million) for digital subscriptions to academic journals in fiscal 2015, nearly double the total of about 6 billion yen in fiscal 2006.

Tatsuhiro Ueno, professor of intellectual property law at Waseda University and a member of a government panel that is considering measures against the pirate website, said the use of pirated academic articles could run afoul of copyright laws in various nations, including Japan.

However, Ueno said that bringing legal action against Sci-Hub may not resolve the problem.

“Filing a lawsuit will probably lead to a court ordering the site to shut down or pay compensation,” he said. “However, whether such orders are effective remains unknown.”

In the United States, a publisher sued Sci-Hub over copyright infringement, and a court ordered the website to pay compensation. The site operator, however, has yet to respond to the order.