Posted by: bluesyemre | June 29, 2021

Is the Pirate Queen of #ScientificPublishing in Real Trouble This Time?

Alexandra Elbakyan

It’s been a rough few months for Sci-Hub, the beloved outlaw repository of scientific papers. In January its Twitter account, which had more than 180,000 followers, was permanently suspended. In response to a lawsuit brought by publishers, new papers aren’t being added to its library. The website is blocked in a dozen countries, including Austria, Britain, and France. There are rumors of an FBI investigation.

And yet Alexandra Elbakyan, the 32-year-old graduate student who founded the site in 2011, seems more or less unfazed. I spoke with her recently via Zoom with the assistance of a Russian translator. Elbakyan, who is originally from Kazakhstan, has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and coded Sci-Hub herself. She lives in Moscow now and is studying philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Back when she started the site, which offers access to north of 85 million papers, she didn’t expect to be fending off lawsuits and dodging investigations a decade on.

“I thought Sci-Hub would become legal in a couple of years,” she said. “When the laws are obviously in the way of scientific development, they should be canceled.”

It hasn’t been that simple. In 2017 a New York judge awarded Elsevier, the multibillion-dollar publishing company behind more than 2,500 journals, a $15-million default judgment against Sci-Hub for copyright infringement. The same year, a Virginia judge awarded the American Chemical Society $4.8 million. (With Elbakyan overseas and Sci-Hub’s financial situation somewhat mysterious, neither publisher is likely to collect a dime.) Courts have repeatedly forced Elbakyan to switch domain names.

The latest lawsuit, filed in India by three academic publishers, including Elsevier, asks the High Court of Delhi to block access to Sci-Hub throughout the country. While the case is pending, the court has instructed Sci-Hub to stop uploading papers to its database. The order is not unusual; what’s surprising is that Elbakyan has complied. She has a history of ignoring legal rulings, and the Indian court has no power over Sci-Hub’s activities in other countries. So why has she chosen, at this moment, to give in?

One reason is that Elbakyan believes she has a shot at winning the case, and her odds might improve if she plays by the rules. “I want the Indian court to finally support free access to science,” she said. If that happened, it would mark a significant victory for Sci-Hub, with reverberations likely beyond India. Victory remains a longshot, but Elbakyan thinks it’s worth the hassle and expense. She didn’t even bother to contest the two lawsuits in the United States.

In coverage of Sci-Hub over the years, Elbakyan is usually cast as an idealistic young programmer standing up to publishers who resell science at a steep markup. There’s some truth to that. Elsevier brings in billions in large part by charging colleges and universities for bundled access to its journals. Those without subscriptions often pay $31.50 for access to a single article. For an independent researcher, or one who works at a small institution that can’t afford to sign a deal with Elsevier, the cost of merely scanning the literature is prohibitive.

And you could argue, as Elbakyan does, that the company’s paywalls have the potential to slow scientific progress. She’s not the only one: More than 18,000 researchers have signed on to a boycott of Elsevier journals because of its business practices.

The other option is to download a journal article’s PDF from Sci-Hub free. About a half-million people each day choose the latter.

Pirates and Publishers

So what’s wrong with using Sci-Hub? According to the publishers who brought the case in India, quite a bit. Pirate sites like Sci-Hub “threaten the integrity of the scientific record, and the safety of university and personal data,” a joint statement reads. It goes on to say that sites like Sci-Hub “have no incentive to ensure the accuracy of scientific articles, no incentive to ensure published papers meet ethical standards, and no incentive to retract or correct articles if issues arise.”

For the record, there’s little evidence that Sci-Hub is actually a threat to the scientific record. The papers on the site are the same papers you can download through official channels. It’s almost certainly true that articles that have been retracted or corrected remain up on Sci-Hub, but academic publishers themselves have a less-than-stellar record of policing and pruning the literature. Plenty of research that has failed to replicate, or should never have passed peer review in the first place, can be found in Elsevier’s archives.

The charge that Sci-Hub is a threat to personal data stems from Elbakyan’s practice of using, let us say, borrowed logins in order to download papers. That’s necessary because whenever publishers determine that a login is being used to download an unusual number of papers, they cut off access, forcing Elbakyan to constantly seek new logins. She’s done this for years and makes no secret of it. The publishers also allege that she uses “phishing attacks to illegally extract copyrighted journal articles.”

Elbakyan denies employing phishing attacks — that is, sending emails that trick people into revealing their login information — but allows that some of the accounts Sci-Hub has used might have been obtained with that technique. “I cannot check the exact source of the account that I receive by email,” she said. There’s no indication that Sci-Hub is using the logins for some other nefarious purpose.

Even so, courts have found that what Sci-Hub does isn’t legal. The question is whether, in the cause of sharing scientific information, her systematic ransacking of academic publishing is justified. In short, is Elbakyan doing more good than harm?

Peter Suber has mixed feelings about Sci-Hub. Suber is director of the Harvard Open Access Project and a longtime opponent of the corporate status quo in scientific publishing. He worried early on that Sci-Hub would give the open-access movement a bad name by creating the impression that the only two options are publishers making billions or straight-up piracy.

He’s somewhat less concerned about that impression these days. “I think most people understand that it’s unlawful and that there are a lot of ways to do the same thing, even though the lawful methods aren’t providing as much access to literature as quickly and conveniently,” he said. While he opposes Sci-Hub, he defends Elbakyan, who he argues has been unfairly maligned. He thinks her handling of the lawsuit in India has been savvy. “If she loses, she’s not going to shut down,” he said. “But if she wins, then Sci-Hub will be legal in at least one country.”

Considering the constant legal threats, Elbakyan is understandably cagey about revealing too much about Sci-Hub — for instance, the locations of its servers or exact details about its finances. She said that while she gets some help, Sci-Hub remains pretty much a one-woman show (it’s “mainly me,” she said). Early on she received donations via PayPal, but those accounts have since been frozen. At the moment, the only way to support Sci-Hub is with Bitcoin donations. It’s been reported that at one point Sci-Hub may have owned 94 Bitcoins, which at today’s prices would be worth $3 million.

Elbakyan didn’t say how much Sci-Hub has socked away, though she suggested she’s not sitting on a fortune. “I remember when Bitcoin increased to $5,000, I thought to myself, ‘Wow, I’m rich,’ and I bought new servers for Sci-Hub,” she said. “I was spending money as the donations were coming in.” She said that running Sci-Hub’s servers costs several thousand dollars per month. Elbakyan hopes to set up a fund-raising site soon, but lately she’s been preoccupied with her studies and her legal battles.

Among the many grateful users of Sci-Hub, Elbakyan has become something of a celebrity. Last year she added a GIF of herself to the site’s download page. It shows her waving her hand and wearing a shirt with the word “Send” printed on the front. After that she was deluged with emails — several thousand, she estimated — a number of which were “very long and elaborate.” She received a colored-pencil portrait from a fan in Bangladesh. Some messages compared her to Saraswati, the Hindu goddess of knowledge. Many fans just said they couldn’t do their research without the site.

Elbakyan’s online notoriety doesn’t affect her everyday life much. She’s found that fellow scholars in the humanities, for the most part, have never heard of Sci-Hub. They don’t know that the philosophy student sitting next to them in class is a pariah to publishers or that she’s embroiled in a legal dispute on another continent over the future of scientific publishing. “Sometimes I meet people that really admire the project, and they recognize me,” she said. “But it’s very few people.”

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