How one perplexing pirate is plundering the publishers

Although illegal, Sci-Hub taps into the frustration many researchers feel about their inability to freely share information

By Felicity Nelson, 6 February 2019

We were waiting for a call from either a master lawbreaker or a hero of science, depending on who you ask.

Our adrenaline spiked and we noted how funny it would be if we were stood up by one of the world’s most powerful internet pirates.

The translator – a friend who volunteered for the job – nervously scribbled some notes. She would be running this interview on her own because I don’t speak a word of Russian.

And suddenly, after many months of research and strategising about how to secure an interview, Alexandra Elbakyan was calling us over Skype.

THE PIRATE QUEEN

Few scientists in Australia have heard of Elbakyan, or her website Sci-Hub. I only recently became aware of it.

Her project is a dream come true for anyone who needs access to scientific literature, but can’t afford, or would prefer not, to spend an average $30 per article. 

It’s simple to use too. You just type sci-hub.tw into your browser, copy and paste the title of almost any academic paper into the search box, click open and “Hey Presto!” Sci-Hub instantly produces the pdf file.

There’s one catch, however. It’s all completely illegal.

Sci-Hub was created eight years ago by Elbakyan, who was, at the time, a 22-year old graduate student living in Kazakhstan.

Working on a shoestring budget, Elbakyan single-handedly built a service that unlocked access to more than 64 million research papers.

For centuries, the entire body of scientific knowledge has been owned by a handful of publishers, who have make a tidy profit by renting it out to libraries around the world. But in the modern world of publishing, the 35% profit margins those publishers have been making are becoming harder to justify.

If the dissemination of almost all scientific research can be achieved by one solitary hacker based in Eastern Europe, what could possibly be making these articles so expensive to produce? It’s not like publishers are covering the cost of doing the scientific research. That bill is picked up by the taxpayer. And the peer reviewing is usually donated labour.

The huge – and arguably humanitarian – Sci-Hub project is making the publishing industry more than a little nervous. In 2017, Elsevier successfully sued Elbakyan for $15 million in the US. In another case brought against Sci-Hub in 2017, the court awarded $4.8 million in damages to the American Chemical Society.

Elbakyan said she didn’t follow the case closely, and couldn’t afford to pay anyway. She now keeps her location a secret and doesn’t travel abroad because she fears being extradited to the US, even though the lawsuits were civil rather than criminal cases.

Love it or hate it, one has to admit that Sci-Hub has, at least temporarily, satisfied a world’s appetite for free research papers. Every time a court orders internet service providers to block Sci-Hub, the website just pops up again under several new domain names.

Researchers in economically disadvantaged countries who can’t afford pricey journal subscriptions rely heavily on Sci-Hub. Some academics in richer nations prefer Sci-Hub, too, simply because it’s easier to use. Sci-Hub has collated 85% of all scholarly articles that would otherwise be behind a paywall, so researchers don’t have to try their luck with multiple, siloed digital libraries to find the paper they are after.

Sci-Hub taps into the frustration researchers have long felt about their inability to freely share information. Prior to Sci-Hub, researchers locked out of digital libraries would often beg for papers on Twitter with the hashtag #canihazpdf. Even wealthy institutions are feeling the pinch. Harvard University, one of the richest universities in the world, said in 2012 that it was struggling to pay the ever-increasing journal subscription levies, which cost around $US3.75 million per year.

Anti-paywall activity by academics has ramped up dramatically in recent times. Around 17,000 researchers have boycotted major publisher Elsevier’s journals through the “Cost of Knowledge” initiative, refusing to peer review, submit or do editorial work.

Last September, a coalition of 11 funding bodies in Europe (including the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation) rolled out Plan S, which would compel scientists receiving grants from these groups to publish in open access journals by 2020.

One of the main factors holding the open access movement back was the lack of prestigious open access publications to rival legacy journals such as The Lancet and Nature.

But now there were highly-respected open access journals in almost every field, Professor Virginia Barbour, the director of the Australasian Open Access Strategy Group, told The Medical Republic.

“One of the reasons why PLOS Medicine and, before that, PLOS Biology, was set up was to exactly challenge those subscription journals because we wanted to provide high-quality places for researchers to publish,” she said.

Publishers are now on the back foot in price negotiations because the unspoken threat of Sci-Hub lingers in the air. With around 300 institutions in Germany and Sweden refusing to renew their subscriptions with Elsevier, thousands of researchers had their access to journals suspended. How long before those stranded academics resort to piracy?

Sci-Hub may be the match that finally ignites the open access revolution, but what do we really know about the woman at the helm? What is she like? What is her end goal? Who is funding her operation? Is she an ally or a threat to the West?

That’s what I hoped to find out in our interview.

While Sci-Hub is wrapped up in communist ideology, Elbakyan considers it also to be a human rights project

MEETING ELBAKYAN

When my Russian translator friend got off the call she threw me an expression that indicated plainly: “Jeepers, that was hard work”.

After agreeing to an hour-long interview, Elbakyan seemed unwilling to talk about anything at any length, she said. Elbakyan was awkward and concise to the point of being curt.

She flat-out refused to answer many questions about Sci-Hub’s operations.

Sci-Hub’s server bill comes to several thousand dollars every month, and the cost is covered by anonymous Bitcoin (an electronic cryptocurrency) donations. But Elbakyan refused to tell us how many Bitcoins Sci-Hub owned and dodged questions about her sources of personal income.

Sci-Hub has borrowed thousands of university login details donated by fans of the website to bypass paywalls. But how does Sci-Hub make sure those login details don’t get into the hands of identity thieves? we asked. “To be honest, I don’t view this as an important question or a serious question,” Elbakyan replied.

Even some of the soft-ball, personal questions went down like a lead balloon. We got one line out of Elbakyan about her cat (who lives with her mother), and another about her ongoing masters in linguistics. Elbakyan said she spends as much time on Sci-Hub as necessary, and doesn’t have a set routine. “Sci-Hub is my personal creative project,” she told The Medical Republic. “My initial motivation was to do something interesting. That’s it.”

When asked about the restrictions that Sci-Hub had put on her life, Elbakyan said: “Well, first of all, it’s prevents me from being employed legally. I also try not to go abroad, specifically to the US.”

Elbakyan showed some self-awareness about her mediocre media performance. “It’s hard for me to discuss topics like this,” she said. “It’s not that I don’t like [your questions], but I’m just not good at them. I thought of going to some sort of training for this field of study. Maybe I’m just a little shy.”

There were a few topics that sparked her interest, however. Elbakyan was passionate about astrology, which she described as her hobby. She drew on astrological themes to explain the natural connection between science and piracy.

“In astrology, science is related to the planet Mercury, which is associated with communication, transport, change, movement, and in mythology, Mercury is the god of thieves,” she said.

“Why the association? Thievery also involves the spread and movement of things. Knowledge is inseparable from communication essentially.”

Elbakyan explains in her lengthy, online autobiography that she initially dismissed astrology as pseudoscience (“How can a reasonable person believe this?”)

But then she found some compelling coincidences. For example, Apple founder Steve Jobs’ natal horoscope was associated with the planet Uranus, which was responsible for innovation, she said.

Astrology isn’t the first unconventional field to attract Elbakyan’s attention. As a computer science student at Kazakh National University, Elbakyan began to fantasise about the trans-humanist concept of a “global brain” where all the nervous systems on the planet unite and form a single consciousness.

It was during her graduate project, which examined the use of electromagnetic fields of the brain as a biometric marker, that Elbakyan realised that scientific literature was prohibitively expensive. “They demanded an average of $30 per article each,” she wrote.

“I searched very long and carefully, and was shocked that these scientific articles were not available anywhere in the public domain. It even, at first, caused me to panic.”

After graduating in 2009, Elbakyan got a job working on neural interfaces at Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany with a salary of 400 euros a month.

She travelled to Harvard University in the US to speak at a conference on trans-humanism and then stayed to work as an unpaid intern at a neuroscience lab at Georgia Tech in Atlanta until her visa expired. There she assisted a PhD student who was researching brain implants for preventing epileptic seizures in rats. 

Elbakyan found lab work “boring” and often felt that she wasn’t respected. “Programming was viewed simply as a technical work that was not related to science,” she wrote.

“Allegedly, I’m just an implementer of foreign scientific ideas.”

So she immersed herself in futuristic intellectualisms, and studied consciousness, philosophy, ancient history, religion and mythology in her spare time.

Her autobiography is stuffed with disparate thoughts about ancient Egypt, Hinduism, Christianity and Scandinavian mythology.

Sci-Hub started to take form when Elbakyan stumbled across a few internet forums where researchers were helping each other gain access to subscription articles. People were incredibly grateful when Elbakyan used her computer wizardry to find the paper they were after, and that was enough to keep her hooked.

As Sci-Hub grew, the sense that something revolutionary was happening was unmistakable.

At age 22, Elbakyan’s knowledge of politics and political theory was limited.

“I had not read Marx, but for some reason it was obvious to me that Sci-Hub was a communist idea,” she said.

“I didn’t even really know who [Russian President Vladimir] Putin was: Some guy, whether a president, or a prime minister. I didn’t care.”

As her project matured, Elbakyan’s political leanings became more firmly aligned with the majority of Russians. “It was 2012, and I turned 24,” she said. “I was a patriot and supported Putin’s policies.”

Elbakyan believes that the common ownership of ideas is essential for scientific progress. 

“If you look at the works of Robert Merton, an American sociologist, he considers communism one of the four pillars of scientific ethos,” she says.

“And if you look at some Soviet posters, they proclaim that communism and science are inseparable.”

Elbakyan believes all scientific knowledge should be liberated from the shackles of capitalism, but she is less in favour of freedom of the media. “If the news is constantly talking about some kind of negative events, then the level of mutual trust in society falls and as a result, society becomes more closed,” she said.

“Thus, it turns out that freedom of speech impedes the development of information openness of society.”

While Sci-Hub is wrapped up in communist ideology, Elbakyan considers it also to be a human rights project. Elbakyan cites Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which states everyone has the right to share in scientific advancement.

IS SCI-HUB A RUSSIAN PROJECT? 

With Russia’s suspected interference in the 2016 US presidential election, and heightened suspicion cast over Eastern Europe, Sci-Hub has become more politised than ever. “Is Sci-Hub a Russian project?” Elbakyan asked on vkontakte, Russia’s version of Facebook.

“This question worries many, especially abroad. Some Americans even suspect the site of direct communication with Putin or the Russian special services.”

Elbakyan says the nationality of Sci-Hub is complicated, just like her own. While she has lived in Kazakhstan most of her life, she has only ever spoken Russian (not Kazakh) and grew up on Russian fairy tales.

As a child, Elbakyan’s family had to skimp and save like many others in ex-Soviet states.

“I had programming literature and a personal computer in my house, which was rare in Kazakhstan in the 1990s,” Elbakyan said. “But there was no internet: at that time it was incredibly expensive. Sometimes my mother went to work on weekends and took me with her. It was a real holiday, because at work you could sit on the internet for unlimited time.

“My surname is Armenian, and from my parents I got a colourful mix of Asian, Caucasian and Ukrainian genes,” she said.

“Though I love Kazakhstan as my motherland, for some reason I have considered myself all my adult life to be Russian.”

More recently, Elbakyan feels as if Russia has deserted her.

“If anything I’m disappointed in the institutions of power in Russia,” she said in our interview. When she first tried to gain Russian citizenship, the examiner made an error accrediting her competency with the Russian language. “I tried again in a year, but Putin had by then signed a law that said to attain citizenship you must swear an oath to faithfully obey the law,” she said.

“I didn’t want to swear the oath.”

Elbakyan experienced a further betrayal from Russia in November last year when the media regulator Roskomnadzor blocked Sci-Hub, following a ruling in favour of Elsevier and Springer Nature by the Moscow City Court.

TAKING THE HIGH ROAD

So we may have reached the point where a billion-dollar, centuries-old industry is brought to its knees by a single Kazakhstani internet pirate.

But digital disruption isn’t solely the preserve of thieves. A pair of researchers-turned-entrepreneurs based in Canada, Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar, have amassed 20 million academic papers without breaking a single copyright law.

The duo have skirted paywalls by creating a wormhole to connect distant realms of the internet. “Information should flow like water but someone needs to build the pipes,” says Jason Priem, chatting over Skype from a café in Vancouver. Priem radiates geniality as he carefully explains the ins and outs of his company with a finesse that makes me think he’s done this many times before.

The internet portal, called Unpaywall, pops up as a browser extension when you search for scientific papers online, he explains. When you hit a paywall, you simply click the green padlock button on the right side of your screen and are directed to the open access version, if it exists anywhere on the internet.

This free copy of the paper has the same information as the published version, but it usually lacks the pretty type-setting, and journal branding.

While authors usually sacrifice copyright in the publication process, they are sometimes allowed to store a copy of their paper in institutional repositories.

These “green open access” papers are stockpiled in various repositories but it can be almost impossible to locate specific papers without Unpaywall’s algorithm.

Unpaywall harvests scientific papers from around 5,000 repositories from around the world, including from PubMed Central and archive.org.

Unpaywall can access around 50% of all scientific literature, and its archive is projected to grow as more content becomes open access.

“Open access is increasingly becoming the default,” says Priem.

While Sci-Hub has met with resistance, Unpaywall has formed connections with Scopus, Elsevier, Digital Science and the British Library.

“Unpaywall is integrated into over 2,000 academic libraries worldwide, and serves over a million requests daily.”

Priem doubts the pirates will win out in the end.

Scholarly publishing is headed for a “relatively utopian” future where publishers get a fair wage for their contribution to the publication process, he says.

“It’s only a matter of time. The only people against the transformation are the people getting rich in publishing industry.”