If you are not a scientist trying to publish your latest research in any of the "respected" and high-impact journals or in one of the open access journals, you might not be aware that there is a real battle going on here. The stakes are free knowledge and, ultimately, the advancement of science and human race. This battle is fought between a growing number of scientists and scientific publishers that charge everyone to read what other scientists learn.
I invite you to read this article through and learn why and how one team of dedicated people stands against every existing subscription-based scientific publisher.
I'll try to make this as short as possible. You can follow the links to learn more.
- Subscriptions to read the pay-per-read papers have become so expensive that some leading universities have admitted they can no longer afford them;
- Scientists that publish their papers don't get anything from those subscriptions. Instead, they need to pay absurd amounts of money to get published;
- If a researcher wants to get recognized, make a career - he or she needs to have publications in high-impact journals. See no. 2 again, then move to no. 4;
- Subscription based journals first earn money from scientists that want to get published. They then make even more money from scientists interested in reading what other scientists learned.
- Publish or perish mentality - the pressure in academia to rapidly and continually publish academic work to sustain or further one's career.
Well, in a bold move to change the world we live in, a researcher from Russia has made more than 48 million journal articles, which is almost every single peer-reviewed scientific paper ever published, freely available online. And she keeps adding new ones, automatically.
Her name is Alexandra Elbakyan, she is a researcher from Kazakhstan, and in 2011 she created Sci-Hub - a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to scientific papers immediately to anyone who wants it.
In their own words, Sci-Hub fights inequality in knowledge access across the world. They believe the scientific knowledge should be available for every person regardless of their income, social status, geographical location... They advocate for cancelation of intellectual property, or copyright laws, for scientific and educational resources, and they support Open Access movement in science.
As described by Big Think's Simon Oxenham, the Sci-Hub website works in two stages. It first tries 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. However, the ingenious part of the Sci-Hub system is that if LibGen does not already have a copy of the paper, it 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.
Elbakyan explains, “We have already downloaded most paywalled articles to the library... we have almost everything!”
"This may well be no exaggeration," Big Think writes. "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."
In 2015, New York District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet delivered a preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub, making the site's former domain unavailable. However, Sci-Hub was back online at a new domain accessible worldwide just a few days later.
Elbakyan wrote the following letter to the judge (pdf copy available here):
I am writing to clarify some details on Elsevier v. Sci-Hub, Case # 15-cv-4282.
I am the main operator of sci-hub.org website mentioned in the case. That is true that via sci-hub.org website anyone can download, absolutely for free, a copy of research paper published by Elsevier (Elsevier asks for 32 USD for each download). I would like to clarify the reasons behind sci-hub.org website.
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 Sci-Hub.org, a website that simply makes this process automatic and the website immediately became popular.
That 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 wonder?
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.
What I written here is not just my opinion - this topic is widely discussed in research community. For example, a researcher John Willinsky wrote a book named "The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship" where he discusses this problem. The general opinion in research community is that research papers should be distributed for free (open access}, not sold. And practices of such companies like Elsevier are unacceptable, because they limit distribution of knowledge. In 2012, there was an "Elsevier boycott" organized by a prominent mathematician Timothy Gowers to battle such practices:
"The Cost of Knowledge is a protest by academics against the business practices of academic journal publisher Elsevier. Among the reasons for the protests are a call for lower prices for journals and to promote increased open access to information. The main work of the project is to ask researchers to sign a statement committing not to support Elsevier journals by publishing, performing peer review, or providing editorial services for these journals."
I would like to also mention that we never received any complaints from authors or researchers, only Elsevier is complaining about free distribution of knowledge on sci-hub.org website.
Featured image: Screenshot of the Sci-Hub.io homepage on February 14, 2016. Credit: Sci-Hub.