Knowledge is power. Information is liberating. Education is the premise of progress, in every society, in every family.
– Kofi Annan
Meet Alexandra Elbakyan, Founder of the highly controversial website, Sci-Hub. She is a neuroscience researcher and an outlaw on the run. Sci-Hub, is the first website in the world to provide mass and free public access to research papers that traditionally incur a pay per view.
So why is this young woman an outlaw on the run? Simply put, Alexandra is fighting for the public’s right to access scientific information for free. This does not sit well with the five major corporations who own the lion’s share of academia’s publishing space. To date, Sci-Hub houses about 60 million scientific research papers and is under constant attack from various governments and ISPs (Internet Service Providers), and faces a myriad of lawsuits for copyright violations from all the big five publishers.
While academic publishing might sound like a boring business model, it happens to be one of the most monopolized and lucrative industries in the world. Annual profits rival companies like Google, Apple and Microsoft and the research papers published by these companies influence pivotal legislation on topics ranging from climate science to new methods for fighting diseases like cancer.
Over HALF of the world’s research is published by five companies.
Reed Elsevier, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Wiley-Blackwell and the American Chemical Society account for over half of all published research papers. In many cases, they have a complete monopolies in specific fields. My research in this area demonstrated how troublesome and egregious this business practice really is.
Consider a library budget and the small fortune they pay for bundled journals. Those buying outside of the university system pay prices in the realm of $20-50 per article.
Keep in mind that this practice and the consolidation of the scientific publishing industry has been the topic of much debate within and outside the scientific community for years. This is especially relevant with the astoundingly high profit margins that major publishers receive. Yet, as the years keep passing by, the oligarchy of scientific publishing keeps tipping in the balance of the five largest publishers.
That is, until Alexandra and Sci-Hub came along and demolished the complicated corporate structure for accessing this information. While Alexandra was an undergraduate student in 2009 at Kazakh National Tech University she ran into problems accessing research papers she needed for her project.
The Kazakhstan government was censoring access to a system called LiveJournal, which is an online blogging platform where anyone can write their articles or ideas and share them online. In order to access the information she wanted, she had to use the ‘anonymizer’ web-service, commonly known as a proxy server or a VPN.
Sci-Hub is a search system and associated repository which contains legal and illegal copyrighted materials. Users can insert either a URL to access an article or a text search or DOI (Digital object Identifier). Once you input either of protocol, the PDF article appears and can be downloaded for free by the user.
As you can imagine, this did not sit well with the five publishing monsters and four short years later, in 2015, Alexandra was sued by Elsevier. Elsevier won the court case and was awarded $15 million in damages for copyright infringement. This happened again in 2017 when the American Chemical Society sued and won a case for $4.8 million.
Alexandra, who operates Sci-Hub from abroad is outside US court jurisdiction and has publicly stated that she plans to ignore the court orders. In 2015, a US court demanded that Sci-Hub be shut down, but Alexandra was not deterred. Sci-Hub has continually resurfaced using different web domains and while she has reportedly lost three of the domains, Sci-Hub continues to operate.
What’s so troubling about this situation is who has paid for the research done by these companies. A great majority of them have been funded by taxpayer dollars!
If taxpayers are funding these reports, why should they pay for them a second time? This is the basis for Alexandria’s mission – to democratize what we already own.
The irony of the situation baffles my mind; that a public asset, paid for by public funds can be re-packaged and sold back to the public for outrageous fees. Essentially, taxpayers pay twice, first for the research and then again to see the work they just paid to have completed.
While scientific papers are published in a similar manner as we would publish the WS Magazine, there are a few drastic differences. Scientists create work under their own direction, funded largely by governments and paid for with taxpayer monies. The completed work is given to publishers free of charge. The publisher will have some costs like paying for scientific editors, and these editors decide what work is even worth publishing.
The bulk of the editorial burden however, such as checking scientific validity and evaluating the experiments in a process known as peer review, is done by scientists on a volunteer basis. The publishers then sell the product back to government-funded institutional and university libraries, to then be read by academics.
In a 2008 essay, Dr. Neal Young of the National Institute of Health (NIH), which funds and conducts medical research for the US government, said, given the importance of scientific innovation to society, “there is a moral imperative to reconsider how scientific data is judged and disseminated”.
A 2013 study, for example, reported that half of all clinical trials in the US are never published in any journal. This means information is not available to other practitioners; information which could add value to ongoing studies. If there’s a political agenda to holding research back, this has a negative effect on efforts that might save lives or improve the world in a tangible way.
Like many of the women we’ve written about on WS, Alexandra risks her safety and her reputation for her vision and what she believes is right.
Because of her and the Sci-Hub platform, libraries and scientists are empowered to confront the big publishing oligarchy. The stranglehold over scientific studies these five companies once had is waning as libraries and users overcome the paywalls and are no longer as beholden to exorbitant pricing and prohibitive access to data. And, how about the win for advancing human knowledge.
Alexandra’s movement has inspired people to create thousands of Open Access journals including PLOS (the Public Library of Sciences). It has also pushed many publishers to allow scientists to upload their research to Open Access repositories like Arxiv.org — currently the largest legal source of Open Access papers.
Alexandra’s project has even the US government showing signs of supporting it. For example, in 2013, the Obama administration mandated that copies of research conducted through federal agencies must be uploaded to free repositories within 12 months of publishing.
Alexandra continues her fight despite receiving very little understanding or support from the big publishing agencies. She has literally put her life on the line to allow everyone on this planet to have free access to knowledge. Her legal bills continue to pile up too. She is liable for between $750 and $150,000 for each paper on her site and if arrested, could face serious time in a penitentiary for what these private corporations and governments consider to be a crime.
Is she a criminal? Alexandra does not see herself as one and stands behind the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. It reads that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
Sci-Hub has already won the moral war in my eyes, by giving many academics and researchers the tools to free themselves from the oppression of big privately-owned publishing houses. Soon after Sci-Hub was launched, nearly 9,000 academics determined not to peer-review or participate in editorial work for Elsevier journals. In Germany well over 200 institutions have refused to renew their Elsevier subscriptions until the company drastically reduced their steep rates.
With the battle raging against open access to information online growing ever-so brightly, Alexandra and Sci-Hub’s war matters all that much more. One woman has brought the entire Scientific Publishing industry to its knees and, despite all their efforts, has continued to share knowledge for free with the entire world.
This begs one central question we should all be asking: is knowledge a basic human right, or do taxpayer monies to fund research give privatized corporate interests the right to pad their bottom lines and control what knowledge is shared? I know what WS’s environmental activist Rachel Carson would say.