The market against science: Alexandra Elbakyan steals from publishers to give scientists

Publicação: 10 de July de 2020

Dissatisfied with the publication model, Elbakyan founded the Sci-Hub website in 2011, at the age of 23 which provides free access to millions of scientific publications that, legally, should be paid for

The unique business model makes access to science only possible for very wealthy individuals and disregards Article 27 of the United Nations (UN) Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Considered the Robin Hood of international science, Kazakhstan programmer Alexandra Elbakyan, above all, is a computer hacker who fights for universal free access to scientific studies. Researchers from all over the world had great difficulty in accessing the scientific literature because the main scientific journals demand payment, either to publish or to access. And they are expensive. In Brazil, for example, the Coordination for the Improvement of Higher Education Personnel (CAPES) pays a fortune to publishers of scientific articles to allow their researchers access. Dissatisfied with the publication model, in 2011, at the age of 23 Elbakyan founded the Sci-Hub website which provides free access to millions of scientific publications that, legally, should be paid for. Elbakyan revolutionized this environment by creating the website that breaks digital control and allows access by millions of users, from scientists around the world, mainly in the United States to the main journals in the world.

Elbakyan explains that when Sci-Hub started, there was a huge problem for many people to access research documents behind paywalls. “There were communities of researchers on the Internet – forums – they came before the social media boom – large sections of these forums were dedicated to soliciting help to get some paper behind the paywall. I wanted to write a software that people could use to obtain these papers automatically. In 2011, I acquired experience in programming on the Web and the idea of how to do this. Sci-Hub obtains research papers using access from registered universities; it connects to different universities – more than 500 – to access publisher sites”, she details.

The Sci-Hub’s proposal is to break scientific barriers, facilitating access to scientific literature and, consequently, the development of new research. Researchers and students are supportive and love to conduct research on the site. Elbakyan says that the reaction to Sci-Hub was a very positive emotion from the beginning. According to her, many researchers immediately started to send their thanks, notes and questions as they could donate to support the project and she is proud to say that there was never negative feedback.

As for publishers, they find the repository absurd and the war between Sci-Hub and scientific journals continues. Elbakyan says there is a cold war between Sci-Hub and the research editors that continue today. The repository’s domains are routinely blocked. And so, Sci-Hub collects enemies around the world and the platform is resisting legal proceedings. “So far, I have ignored all lawsuits”, says Elbakyan.

Until the emergence of Sci-Hub, open access was promoted on a large scale, with relative success, only by the movements of legal open access. With the repository, students and scientists do not have to pay a fortune in subscriptions to scientific journals and are able to access quality content to develop their research. However, as the website itself says, it is a pirated service, therefore, illegal. This causes the Sci-Hub URL to change frequently. Recently, warnings that Sci-Hub poses a threat to cybersecurity for universities have intensified. Asked if Sci-Hub is safe, Elbakyan emphasizes that perhaps this was a temporary technical problem when Sci-Hub updated its HTTPS certificate and ensures that Sci-Hub is absolutely safe. “It doesn’t gather anything from your computer, as was accused by some publishers”, she says.

Dissatisfaction with the scientific publication model

But does the enthusiasm for Sci-Hub demonstrate dissatisfaction with the scientific publication model that involves researchers from all fields? Elbakyan believes that the enthusiasm for Sci-Hub stems from the ability to access and read research articles. “I feel that most students and researchers are not concerned with how the publishing system works. At the same time, you can hardly find anyone to support the editors; despite this, many people are very busy, reluctant or afraid to change the system or adopt new models of open access, at least in Russia”, she adds. In addition, Elbakyan believes that there should be no barriers to accessing science and that the business model of scientific publishers is flawed. “Otherwise, why would I start Sci-Hub in the first place? The business model based on paywalls is defective because it creates obstacles to communication and the development of science”, she justifies. The fact is that the demand for free access to scientific knowledge is too great and it will be difficult to impose regional laws on a decentralized internet. Most likely, if you close one site, another one will appear.

Law prevents the development of science and the future of scientific publications

It is not new that the legality, gratuity and access of scientific articles is debated in the academic and scientific environment and there are those who guarantee that Sci-Hub harms science and that the money that scientific publishers collect is vital for the system. However, in Elbakyan’s view, publishers are collecting huge sums of money. “See, for example, at the expense of the public good. They prevent access to research to collect extra income. and researchers cannot work without access. This is what hurts science and not Sci-Hub!”, she argues.

For Elbakyan, the law prevents the development of science and that law must be repealed.  According to her, Sci-Hub is a non-legal project because it does not obey the so-called ‘copyright law’. This law ensures that research literature is a ‘private property’ of some research editors and not a public good. In this area, a system of paywalls was established in science and we saw how it became an obstacle to the progress of science. Science is reason and the law cannot go against reason”, she points out.

Regarding the future of scientific publications, Elbakyan comments that a research paper or a book is a form of communication. The first research journals emerged as tools used by scientists to communicate their findings and thoughts. And today, new technologies are radically transforming the way people communicate. Perhaps journals will disappear in the future, and instead, some kind of special social media for science will be used.

Regarding the impact of Sci-Hub on science in poor countries, especially in tropical countries, such as Brazil, Elbakyan recalls that currently, Brazil is the third country in number of users of Sci-Hub, after China and India! “In the past two weeks, I published my email on the Sci-Hub website and suddenly I received many emails from users in Brazil, including that of the Brazilian Society of Tropical Medicine (SBMT)”, she celebrates. Still according to her, many researchers write that they are excited and happy to have Sci-Hub and that they are using it to gain access to the journal.

Robin Hood of science against the editorial empire

Everyone uses the Sci-Hub, but nobody thanks Elbakyan and so she lost visibility. Everything went on like this until a few days ago when she sent a “hello” from her website and in fact, some public comments and from researchers appeared. “Of course, the real impact of Sci-Hub is much greater than you can assume if you just consider public comments about it. Obviously, I want to change that, so that Sci-Hub is widely recognized and accepted as a legal solution to the paywall problem. I think we also have a media problem. For some reason, the discussion about Sci-Hub was small and unfair compared to the impact. Imagine if the Large Hadron Collider was not discussed, but silenced”, concludes Elbakyan.

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