This Kazakh Hacker Wants To Destroy The Academic Publishing Establishment

Kazakhstan-born computer engineer Alexandra Elbakyan is now an international copyright outlaw. Her Sci-Hub website offers free access to millions of academic publications, a direct challenge to the entire publishing and academic establishment.

This Kazakh Hacker Wants To Destroy The Academic Publishing Establishment
Yves Eudes

PARIS ­— Formally speaking, Alexandra Elbakyan, 27, lives in Almaty, her hometown in Kazakhstan. But in reality, she probably lives somewhere in Russia. Her life and her travels are now secret: in October 2015, a New York federal court found her guilty of pirating scientific articles owned by Anglo-Dutch publisher Elsevier.

Elbakyan works as a computer engineer and is specialized in futuristic programs that aim to provide a direct connection between the brain and a computer. But since 2011, she is also the creator and moderator of the website Sci-Hub. It offers the free download of all scientific articles that are available on the Internet. These articles largely come from the websites of the leading international scientific publishers like Elsevier, Germany's Springer and the New Jersey-based Wiley, which hold exclusive distribution rights and sell them at a high price. A private individual pays an average of $32 (28,50 euros) per article and the large libraries have to buy a range of subscriptions, which cost them millions of dollars each year.

The young Kazakh admits that since her conviction, her situation is far from ideal. "I don't feel endangered where I am now, but I have to be careful," she told Le Monde in a telephone interview. She doesn't travel to the United States any more, or to any other country that has an extradition treaty with Washington. It is a major change for this bright student, who was frequently invited in Europe and in America for fellowships and conferences.

During the summer 2015, she called and wrote to the judge in New York in order to defend her action. "When I was a student in Kazakhstan, I had no access to any of the articles I needed for my research," she told him. "Thirty-two dollars, it is way too much when you have to read dozens or hundreds of articles for your research." She explained that, thanks to the Internet, it is now a common practice for scientific communities around the world to freely share articles. She used this informal system often during her studies. Then, she decided to share this system with others. "People have always been grateful. Sci-Hub only automates that process," she said. "It became popular right away."

And for a good reason. The big publishers don't pay a cent to the authors or their peers who are in charge of proofreading and editing the articles. If an author wants his article to be freely distributed to attract more readers, he has to pay the publisher, sometimes more than $2,000. An agreement that Elbakyan calls "racketeering."

The judge in New York was not convinced. He ordered the deactivation of the website address Sci-hub.org (the domain ".org" is managed by the American association Public Interest Registry), and demanded that Elbakyan cease all activities related to the site. He also condemned LibGen (Library Genesis), a Russian website of pirated books that collaborates with Sci-Hub but whose managers remained anonymous. According to Elsevier's American lawyer, the ruling handed down in October was just a first step. The publisher is asking for colossal damages and compensation fees.

Big ambitions

Elbakyan was not intimated and even fought back. In December, she reopened her website with the domain name ".io", which is under British jurisdiction, and with an IP address related to a web host in Saint Petersburg. The new website was also accessible via the secure network TOR, which allows someone to browse the Internet anonymously and without being tracked. Within a few weeks, Sci-Hub was again getting millions of visitors each month, largely from China, India, Iran, and Russia, but also from the United States.

Over time, the young programmer managed to build up a product of professional quality. In its 2016 version, Sci-Hub offers a search engine that can find any scientific article thanks to its standard reference or a key word. If the article is still unknown, the system is going to search it surreptitiously on the publisher's website, by pretending to be a legitimate subscriber. Then the system sends a copy to the requester and another to the website LibGen, which stores it on its illicit servers. Thus, as Elbakyan explains, "the article will still exist on the Internet even if something happens to Sci-Hub." When another user will request that same article, Sci-Hub will simply look for it in LibGen. In March 2016, LibGen's "free library" possessed 48 million articles, four times more than Elsevier…

The Kazakh academic pirate insists she has a life outside Sci-Hub: she works as a web programmer and went back to school to study History and Philosophy of Science. Having said that, she admits that managing her website is very time-consuming. "I have a lot of supporters but they are not well organized. They send me donations but for the most part, their commitment is not really serious," she said. "All in all, I probably work more than the publishers."

Despite her solitude, Elbakyan set herself a goal that she describes without any false modesty: "I want to collect the entire range of scientific and educational literature and make it accessible to the whole world. Just like Google Books, but maybe in a more ambitious way."

It is a task less unrealistic than it may seem. For Elbakyan's adventure is part of a widespread global movement within the scientific community: "Open Access" advocates for free access to the entire range of scientific literature and is starting to take off in some disciplines. Outside Sci-Hub, researchers from many countries are already freely exchanging articles without consulting anyone, via email, Facebook, Twitter or Reddit…

Others made Sci-Hub the subject of their research studies, contributing to its popularity. In France, Guillaume Cabanac, university lecturer in computer science at the Toulouse University, published in 2015 "the first quantitative study of web platforms LibGen and Sci-Hub's catalogues."

Canadian librarian Ryan Regier organized a conference about "scholarly piracy" last February in Toronto. "I started to have an interest in this when I noted that in my university, researchers and students worked on articles they didn't get at the library," he said.

Even If he stops short of expressing openly his solidarity with Alexandra Elbakyan, Regier hopes that Sci-Hub will serve as a catalyst to push forward the Open Access movement. "Sci-Hub has already made a difference by becoming the greatest scientific library in the world," he said. "It is simpler, more efficient and more exhaustive than the largest libraries' system, which are constrained by their bureaucratic traditions."

Technically, the website's operation is closely linked with the university libraries. "The users' requests are re-routed via university networks. The publisher's website only notices that they come from a university and not from a user of Sci-Hub", the computer engineer explains without giving any details.

Establishment support

Beyond the field of research, Sci-Hub is supported by associations that defend Internet freedoms and by political groups of the alternative left. After the New York Court's verdict, an informal group named Custodians published an open letter in sixteen languages, calling for action in support of Alexandra Elbakyan.

One of the initiators, Marcell Mars, a computer scientist and digital artist living in Zagreb, Croatia, describes the importance of Sci-Hub in his entourage. "It became an essential tool for research institutions that are located at the periphery of the capitalist world, both geographically and socially," Mars said. "Here, the university professors use it all the time, some even give links to Sci-Hub to their students."

Sci-Hub even has supporters within the Western scientific establishment. Ulrich Dirnagl, professor of medicine and director of the division of neurology at the Charité hospital in Berlin, offers open praise for the Kazakh pirate. "I don't know what to think about this woman in Russia but she has worked a miracle," he says. "For years I use to receive emails from researchers living in Cuba or Romania, who asked me to send them our articles freely. It is illegal but I gladly did it. Yet for some time now, they had stopped their requests. I was wondering why, but when I found out about Sci-Hub, I understood: They served themselves directly!"

In early March, Professor Dirnagl announced to members of his unit that from now on, they would have to publish their work on Open Access. "I also talked to them about Sci-Hub. Most of them didn't know about it, I told them to test it," he said. "If researchers from rich countries start to use the website, the current system is going to collapse."

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