April 7, 2016

Meet the world’s foremost pirate of academic research


Elbakyan at Harvard in 2010.

Elbakyan at Harvard in 2010. Image via Wikipedia

The biggest game in town for pirated research and academic papers is Sci-Hub. If you want to download an academic paper without having to pay for it, this is the best, albeit technically illegal, choice.

Alexandra Elbakyan, a 27-year-old Kazakhstani grad student, started the site in 2011. In a recent profile by Michael Rosenwald of the Washington Post, Elbakyan discussed the site’s ethos, her feelings on academic publishing, and whether or not she fears legal action.

The 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan is operating a searchable online database of nearly 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles, shattering the $10 billion-per-year paywall of academic publishers.

Elbakyan has kept herself beyond the reach of a federal judge who late last year issued an injunction against her site, noting that damages could total $150,000 per article—a sum that Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis, a journal in her database, could help calculate. But she is not hiding from responsibility.

“There are many ways to argue that copyright infringement is not theft, but even if it is, it is justified in this case,” she said in an instant-message interview via Google. “All content should be copied without restriction. But for education and research, copyright laws are especially damaging.”

The original incarnation of Sci-Hub began when Elbakyan was pirating papers for herself at Georgia Tech and Albert-Ludwigs University. As it turned out, others in her program wanted in on the free papers, so she created the site’s original incarnation. It’s since grown into a much larger enterprise that integrates with another pirated paper hub, LibGen, and also pulls papers directly from online libraries by using anonymously donated passwords. Well, donated, yes, but maybe also stolen passwords. As Rosenwald reports:

Elbakyan and her supporters have said the passwords were donated by those sympathetic to her cause. But she also acknowledges that some passwords were obtained using the kind of phishing methods that hackers use to dupe people out of financial information.

“It may be well possible that phished passwords ended up being used at Sci-Hub,” she said. “I did not send any phishing emails to anyone myself. The exact source of the passwords was never personally important to me.”

Sci-Hub and LibGen were briefly shut down in 2015 when Elsevier, the world’s largest publisher of academic journals, won a preliminary injunction against the site after they sued Elbakyan for fraud and copyright infringement. However, both sites soon returned with new domains. The case has since dragged on, with pretrial proceedings set for later this month, and the big question remaining: Does a US court have jurisdiction over a website hosted outside the United States by a Kazakhstani citizen?

In an interview with RT.com, Elbakyan commented on the lawsuit’s worst-case scenario:

“Even if legal access to [Sci-Hub] is blocked, the user can still get in through the TOR network and immediately gain access to all the articles. However, we intent to fight for free access to all information. After all, using TOR still provides obstacles. And I believe there should be no obstacles on the way to scientific knowledge.”

For more information on TOR, check out a very handy overview here.

This case is reminiscent of the late lamentable tragedy of Aaron Swartz, and continues to stir up the ongoing debate and tension between academic publishing and those forced to pay for their products. We’ve written before about how academic publishers price their services in a wildly arbitrary manner, and how this even led one Elsevier-published journal’s entire staff to resign.

There’s no doubt that the “information wants to be free” and “publishers need to make a living” crowds will continue swatting at each other as disruptions like Sci-Hub keep exposing the paper market’s financial reality. As for Elbakyan?

Where is she?

“The exact location is secret,” she said.

Can she ever be stopped?

“It depends on my expertise,” she said. “Can I outsmart these guys?”




Liam O’Brien is the Senior Sales & Marketing Manager at Melville House, and a former bookseller.