“On the evening of November 9th, 1989, the Cold War came to a dramatic end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Four years ago another wall began to crumble, a wall that arguably has as much impact on the world as the wall that divided East and West Germany. The wall in question is the network of paywalls that cuts off tens of thousands of students and researchers around the world, at institutions that can’t afford expensive journal subscriptions, from accessing scientific research.
On September 5th, 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to nearly every scientific paper ever published immediately to anyone who wants it. The website works in two stages, firstly by attempting to download a copy from the LibGen database of pirated content, which opened its doors to academic papers in 2012 and now contains over 48 million scientific papers. The ingenious part of the system is that if LibGen does not already have a copy of the paper, Sci-hub bypasses the journal paywall in real time by using access keys donated by academics lucky enough to study at institutions with an adequate range of subscriptions. This allows Sci-Hub to route the user straight to the paper through publishers such as JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier. After delivering the paper to the user within seconds, Sci-Hub donates a copy of the paper to LibGen for good measure, where it will be stored forever, accessible by everyone and anyone.
This was a game changer. Before September 2011, there was no way for people to freely access paywalled research en masse; researchers like Elbakyan were out in the cold. Sci-Hub is the first website to offer this service and now makes the process as simple as the click of a single button.
As the number of papers in the LibGen database expands, the frequency with which Sci-Hub has to dip into publishers’ repositories falls and consequently the risk of Sci-Hub triggering its alarm bells becomes ever smaller. Elbakyan explains, “We have already downloaded most paywalled articles to the library … we have almost everything!” This may well be no exaggeration. Elsevier, one of the most prolific and controversial scientific publishers in the world, recently alleged in court that Sci-Hub is currently harvesting Elsevier content at a rate of thousands of papers per day. Elbakyan puts the number of papers downloaded from various publishers through Sci-Hub in the range of hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to a running total of over 19 million visitors.
The efficiency of the system is really quite astounding, working far better than the comparatively primitive modes of access given to researchers at top universities, tools that universities must fork out millions of pounds for every year. Users now don’t even have to visit the Sci-Hub website at all; instead, when faced with a journal paywall they can simply take the Sci-Hub URL and paste it into the address bar of a paywalled journal article immediately after the “.com” or “.org” part of the journal URL and before the remainder of the URL. When this happens, Sci-Hub automatically bypasses the paywall, taking the reader straight to a PDF without the user ever having to visit the Sci-Hub website itself.
If, at first pass the network fails to gain access to the paper, the system automatically tries different institutions’ credentials until it gains access. 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 important now more than ever in a world where even Harvard University can no longer afford to pay skyrocketing academic journal subscription fees, while Cornell axed many of its Elsevier subscriptions over a decade ago. For researchers outside the US’ and Western Europe’s richest institutions, routine piracy has long been the only way to conduct science, but increasingly the problem of unaffordable journals is coming closer to home.
This was the experience of Elbakyan herself, who studied in Kazakhstan University and just like other students in countries where journal subscriptions are unaffordable for institutions, was forced to pirate research in order to complete her studies. Elbakyan told me, “Prices are very high, and that made it impossible to obtain papers by purchasing. You need to read many papers for research, and when each paper costs about 30 dollars, that is impossible.”
So how did researchers like Elbakyan ever survive before Sci-Hub? Elbakyan explains, “Before Sci-Hub, this problem was solved manually for years! For example, students would go to an online forum where other researchers communicate, and request papers there; other people would respond to the request.” This practice is widespread even today, with researchers even at rich Western institutions now routinely forced to email the authors of papers directly, asking for a copy by email, wasting the time of everyone involved and holding back the progress of research in the process.
Today many researchers use the #icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter to ask other benevolent researchers to download paywalled papers for them, a practice Elbakyan describes as “very archaic,” pointing out that “especially in Russia, the Sci-Hub project started a new era in how research work is done. Now, the requests for information are solved by machines, not the hands of other researchers. Automation made the process of solving requests very effective. Before, hundreds of requests were solved per day; Sci-Hub turned these numbers into hundreds of thousands.”
Last year, New York District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet delivered a preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub, making the site’s former domain unavailable. The injunction came in the run-up to the forthcoming case of Elsevier vs. Sci-Hub, a case Elsevier is expected to win — due, in no small part, because no one is likely to turn up on U.S. soil to initiate a defence. Elsevier alleges “irreparable harm,” based on statutory damages of $750-$150,000 for each pirated work. Given that Sci-Hub now holds a library of over 47 million papers Elsevier’s claim runs into the billions, but can be expected to remain hypothetical both in theory and in practice.
Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher and by far the most controversial. Over 15,000 researchers have vowed to boycott the publisher for charging “exorbitantly high prices” and bundling expensive, unwanted journals with essential journals, a practice that allegedly is bankrupting university libraries. Elsevier also supports SOPA and PIPA, which the researchers claim threatens to restrict the free exchange of information. Elsevier is perhaps most notorious for delivering takedown notices to academics, demanding them to take their own research published with Elsevier off websites like Academia.edu.
The movement against Elsevier has only gathered speed over the course of the last year with the resignation of 31 editorial board members from the Elsevier journal Lingua, who left in protest to set up their own open-access journal, Glossa. Now the battleground has moved from the comparatively niche field of linguistics to the far larger field of cognitive sciences. Last month, a petition of over 1,500 cognitive science researchers called on the editors of the Elsevier journal Cognition to demand Elsevier offer “fair open access”. Elsevier currently charges researchers $2,150 per article if researchers wish their work published in Cognition to be accessible by the public, a sum far higher than the charges that led to the Lingua mutiny.
In a letter to the judge, Elbakyan defended her decision not on legal grounds, but on ethical grounds. Elbakyan writes: “When I was a student in Kazakhstan University, I did not have access to any research papers. These papers I needed for my research project. Payment of 32 dollars is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them. Later I found there are lots and lots of researchers (not even students, but university researchers) just like me, especially in developing countries. They created online communities (forums) to solve this problem. I was an active participant in one of such communities in Russia. Here anyone who needs a research paper, but cannot pay for it, could place a request and other members who can obtain the paper will send it for free by email. I could obtain any paper by pirating it, so I solved many requests and people always were very grateful for my help. After that, I created Sci-Hub.org, a website that simply makes this process automatic and the website immediately became popular.
It is true that Sci-Hub collects donations, however we do not pressure anyone to send them. Elsevier, in contrast, operates by racket: If you do not send money, you will not read any papers. On my website, any person can read as many papers as they want for free, and sending donations is their free will. Why can Elsevier not work like this, I wonder?”
In her letter to Sweet, Elbakyan made a point that will likely come as a shock to many outside the academic community: Researchers and universities don’t earn a single penny from the fees charged by publishers such as Elsevier for accepting their work, while Elsevier has an annual income over a billion U.S. dollars. Elbakyan explains: “I would also like to mention that Elsevier is not a creator of these papers. 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. But the economics of research papers is very different. Authors of these papers do not receive money. Why would they send their work to Elsevier then? They feel pressured to do this, because Elsevier is an owner of so-called “high-impact” journals. If a researcher wants to be recognized, make a career — he or she needs to have publications in such journals.”
This is the Catch-22. Why would any self-respecting researcher willingly hand over, for nothing, the copyright to their hard work to an organization that will profit from the work by making the keys prohibitively expensive to the few people who want to read it? The answer is ultimately all to do with career prospects and prestige. Researchers are rewarded in jobs and promotions for publishing in high-ranking journals such as Nature.
Ironically, it is becoming increasingly common for researchers to be unable to access even their own published work, as wealthier and wealthier universities join the ranks of those unable to pay rising subscription fees. Another tragic irony is the fact that high-impact journals can actually be less reliable than lesser-ranked journals, due to their requirements that researchers publish startling results, which can lead to a higher incidence of fraud and bad research practices.
But things are changing. Researchers are increasingly fighting back against the problem of closed-access publishers and now funders of research such as the Wellcome Trust are increasingly joining the battle by instituting open access policies banning their researchers from publishing in journals with closed access. But none of this helps researchers who need access to science right now.
For her part, Elbakyan isn’t giving up the fight, in spite of the growing legal pressure, which she feels is totally unjust. When I asked what her next move would be, Elbakyan said, “I do not want Elsevier to learn about our plans,” but assured me she was not put off by the recent court order, defiantly stating “we are not going to stop our activities, and plan to expand our database.”
Already, only days after the court injunction blocking Sci-Hub’s old domain, Sci-Hub was back online at a new domain accessible worldwide. Since the court judgment, the website has been upgraded from a barebones site that existed entirely in Russian to a polished English version proudly boasting a library of 48 million papers, complete with a manifesto in opposition to copyright law. The bird is out of its cage, and if Elsevier still thinks it can put it back, they may well be sorely mistaken.”