Two years ago, writer Simon Oxenham at Big Think broke the story of Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan dubbed the “Robin Hood of Science”. Elbakyan started SciHub, which bypasses journal paywalls to provide illegal free access to anyone who wants them, in 2011. Elsevier, one of the biggest names in academic publishing in the world, has testified that SciHub was harvesting articles at the rate of thousands per day–Elbakyan stated that it was more like hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to more than 19 million users. Oxenham wrote that, with a database of over 48 million articles in 2017, “Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge.”
Many see Elbakyan as a crusader against an industry that has been unfair since large corporations took over academic publishing. Academic authors are not paid for their contributions, yet Elsevier has an annual income of over $1 billion US dollars; most academics have no choice but to publish in journals owned and operated by these international corporations as they are required to do so to obtain tenure. As Oxenham pointed out in a follow-up piece, virtually every step of the academic publishing process is carried out by volunteers, including editing, reviewing, and production. Journal paywalls make it impossible for people working as social workers, nurses, chemists, or planners to access the latest developments in their field–as they are no longer students or researchers at a university that pays hefty journal subscription fees. Many journals have introduced Open Access options in the past two decades, and about 70% of them do not charge authors publication fees to guarantee that readers can access their articles for free. The rest compound the problem by charging authors hundreds or thousands of dollars per article to be published.
Originally created for a very practical reason–universities in Kazakhstan couldn’t afford journals’ high subscription rates, which is no surprise since even Harvard and Cornell have been unable to keep up–SciHub was built upon the practice of sharing final or pre-publication versions of the articles with fellow researchers. Elbakyan was forced to find pirated articles this way as a student, being unable to afford to pay for every single article she needed to read. Having left Kazakhstan to work in computer security in Moscow for a year, she went to the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010 to work on a brain-computer interface project. Returning to Kazakhstan and frustrated with the #icanhazPDF approach researchers had to use to find papers through Twitter, she used her coding and hacking skills to create SciHub, which automated the process and made it much more efficient. The process couldn’t be easier to use–just find the article you want to access and then add SciHub’s complete URL. Elbakyan operates the website from Russia using varying domain names and IP addresses.
As Oxenham pointed out, Elbakyan seems to have picked up the baton from Aaron Swartz, the genius inventor of RSS, Creative Commons and co-founder of Reddit. Swartz met a tragic end through suicide after he downloaded the entire contents of the JSTOR database and was beset upon with 13 wire-fraud felony charges. Though Swartz and Elbakyan never met or were aware of each others’ work, they seemed to share some common goals.
In 2015 Elsevier brought a case against SciHub. After Elbakyan’s story was published on Big Think in February 2016 and several other media outlets jumped onboard, Google blocked SciHub’s access to Google Scholar. John Bohannon at Science called SciHub “an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.” In a default judgement on June 21, 2017, a New York district court awarded Elsevier $15 million for copyright infringement by SciHub and the Library of Genesis (LibGen) project, where Elbakyan was posting content harvested by SciHub. But Elbakyan lives outside the court’s jurisdiction and does not have any US assets, so she can’t be forced to pay even if she could.
Where does that leave our female Robin Hood? Nature named Elbakyan, who calls her mission “scientific communism”, one of the top ten people who matter in science in 2016. As Ian Graber-Stiehl wrote on The Verge a few months ago, the publicity from the case only made SciHub more popular. It is now the biggest Open Access academic resource in the world, with over 64 million articles. Didem Kaya Bayram and Furkan Akyurek at TRT World called SciHub “a game changer for the industry”, arguing that even if it collapses, it shows that the current model of academic publishing is broken and publishers need to change their business model to stay relevant. This victory, shadowed by Swartz’s and her own legal problems, is offset by Elbakyan’s need to stay in hiding–she now studies the history of science at an undisclosed location, and will probably never be able to visit the US. Her role in ushering in a new academic publishing era is firmly established.