Monday, 15 February 2016

Meet the Robin Hood of Science | Big Think



Meet the Robin Hood of Science

Update 02/16/16: Since last week’s
deluge of traffic to Sci-Hub following this story Google have blocked
Sci-Hub’s access to Google Scholar, making the search function
temporarily defunct. The service otherwise works as before, users simply
have to find the link to the paper they need unlocked themselves, and
insert Sci-hub’s complete URL into the domain as discussed above. When I
asked Alexandra about this setback she was completely unfazed,
explaining “we are developing our own search engine anyway, so it
doesn’t matter”. Ironically, the Google Scholar block may actually work
in Sci-Hub’s favor Alexandra explains, not having to perform the complex
task of managing searches, the server can now work much faster when
handling the same amount of queries. Alexandra is now working on
creating a “Google-like” search method, that could potentially result in
“a more sophisticated” solution than Google Scholar.

The tale of how one researcher has made nearly every
scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere
in the world.

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.

This isn’t the end of they story. Read Part Two — The Robin Hood of Science: The Missing Chapter

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

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 48 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

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, 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

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

Follow Simon Oxenham @Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list, for weekly analysis of science and psychology news. 

Image Credit: jeanbaptisteparis / Flickr.

Meet the Robin Hood of Science | Big Think

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