A Russian scientist has set up a pirate website and is offering millions of academic papers for free illegally. Most of them go for more than $32 dollars each through official publishers like Elsevier, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell, Taylor & Francis and Sage.
Alexandra Elbakyan, who owns the website Sci-Hub, from which people can get scientific articles free of charge, says the exorbitant prices charged by publishers undermines the spread of knowledge.
Ms. Elbakyan has about 48 million papers that people can access freely through Sci-Hub. She says she disliked having to pay to read the mountain of articles while doing her own research.
Ms. Elbakyan writes on her website: “The Sci-Hub project, running from 5th September 2011, is challenging the status quo. At the moment, Sci-Hub provides access to hundreds of thousands research papers every day, effectively bypassing any paywalls and restrictions.”
In an interview with Torrent Freak last year, Ms. Elbakyan said:
“Payment of $32 (£22, €28.70) is just insane when you need to skim or read tens of hundreds of these papers to do research. Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal.”
Scientist ignoring lawsuits
Ms. Elbakyan refuses to take down the website or stop people’s free access to the scientific papers, despite a lawsuit from Amsterdam-based publishing giant Elsevier B.V. against her in June 2015. The website has existed since 2011.
In October 2015, a New York District Court ruled in the publisher’s favour, stating that Sci-Hub violates US copyright law. Writing in Nature News in December, Quirin Schiermeier said access to Sci-Hub’s web domain was supended following the court ruling. However, it has since moved to a different domain.
The court ruling plus Ms. Elbakyan’s decision to stand her ground has triggered a debate over who really owns science.
The major academic publishers will allow you to read the Abstract of an article free of charge – but if you want the whole paper, you will have to pay.
The Russian scientist sounds like a modern-day Robin Hood of the scientific world. However, it is not just those with low incomes that don’t have access to scientific articles. Journal subscriptions have become so expensive that even top universities like Cornell and Harvard say they are no longer able to afford them.
Over fifteen thousand scientists across the world have taken a stand, saying they are boycotting Elsevier, partly because of its ‘exorbitant’ paywall fees.
Fiona Macdonald, writing in Science Direct, agrees that journal publishers have done a whole lot of good. Thanks to their peer-review system, research has improved. Before the Internet, academic journals were vital for the dissemination of knowledge.
Journal’s contribution to scientific progress questioned
However, over the past few years, a growing number of people have started to question their contribution to scientific progress.
Many wonder whether the ‘publish or perish’ mentality is creating more problems for science than solutions. More and more publishers are charging scientists to have their work published – in many cases there is no proper peer review process or adequate editing.
In an open letter to the New York judge last year, Ms. Elbakyan wrote:
“They feel pressured to do this. If a researcher wants to be recognised, make a career – he or she needs to have publications in such journals.”
On her website, Ms. Elbakyan writes: “We fight inequality in knowledge access across the world. The scientific knowledge should be available for every person regardless of their income, social status, geographical location and etc. Our mission is to remove any barrier which impeding the widest possible distribution of knowledge in human society!” (Image: Twitter)
Free article delivered in seconds
Her website works in two stages. The enquirer searches for an article and Sci-Hub tries to download it from fellow pirate database LibGen. If that is unsuccessful, it is able to bypass the journal’s paywalls thanks to several access keys that anonymous academics have donated.
Put simply, Sci-Hub can get you any of the 48 million papers published by the major publishers and send it to you online within seconds – all free of charge. A copy of that paper is then automatically sent to LibGen in order to update its database.
Science Direct quotes Simon Oxenham of Big Think, who says regarding Sci-Hub’s system:
“In one fell swoop, a network has been created that likely has a greater level of access to science than any individual university, or even government for that matter, anywhere in the world.”
“Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access – literally a world of knowledge.”
This is great news for users who are fed up with having to pay through the nose for access to articles. However, and with good reason, the major publishers are livid.
If Elsevier gets what the New York court ruled last year, it should be entitled to receive between $750 and $150,000 for each pirated paper. We are looking at a mega multi-million damages figure.
However, Ms. Elbakyan has so far shown no signs of being intimidated by the big boys and the mighty courts of America. She claims that Elsevier is the one with the illegal business model.
Not the same as music or movie industry pirating
Pirating published materials in science is not the same as in the movie or music industry, Ms. Elbakyan explained. In the music industry, for example, pirating rips off the musician.
Regarding scientific papers on the publishers’ websites, Ms. Elbakyan says:
“All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold.”
Ms. Elbakyan hopes that what she is doing and the current lawsuit will set a precedent, so that it becomes clear in the world of science who the owner of an idea is.
Ms. Elbakyan added:
“If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge.”
“We have to win over Elsevier and other publishers and show that what these commercial companies are doing is fundamentally wrong.”
Ms. Elbakyan lives in Russia and has no assets in the United States. So, even though Elsevier won the latest lawsuit, it is going to find it near to impossible to get any compensation or have the website taken down.
It will be interesting to see how this pans out and whether the result will be good for science.
Video – Scientific Publishing and Open Access
In this debate, the speakers discuss the following questions: 1. Is the transition to full and immediate open access of research papers inevitable. 2. Does the growth of open access threaten the quality of research papers? 3. How will science literature evolve over the foreseeable future. 4. How will the roles and funds of researchers, publishers, research councils and universities need to evolve?