Russian researcher gives free access to 48 million academic papers

Photo: Pete/Flickr/Creative Commons

Russian researcher gives free access to 48 million academic papers

Asad Ali @asadali1989

The event

  • Alexandra Elbakyan, a Russian researcher, has put online for free about 48 million research papers on Sci-Hub

  • Elsevier, a big player in the publishing circles has slapped a lawsuit against Elbakyan citing "irreparable damage"

Crux of the matter

  • Academic research material is controlled by predatory publishers - even institutions like Harvard have found it tough to pay journal publishers their exhorbitant prices

More in the story

  • Why the US will find it difficult to get back at Elbakyan

  • Why the fight against niche publishers may be fair after all

From Russia with love? You bet. A Russian researcher has made available for free 48 million journal articles on what's seen as a hub for pirated academic content, Sci-Hub - a site the researcher helped set up in 2011.

Meet Alexandra Elbakyan. A Russian neuroscientist from Kazakhstan who's behind as much academic material freely accessible as she can online.

Her motive is easy to understand. Students of all kinds, Masters to PhDs, depend heavily on research others have done. Not only to gain perspective but also as crucial reference points for new research.

However, the price publishers put on such academic content makes it inaccessible to most individuals and even institutions, making it hyper-restrictive for those looking to broaden their horizons without going broke in the process.

Also read: Light read: 'The Story of Babur' is a delightful book for the young & old alike

In an email interview to RT, Elbakyan explained her position directly: "There should be no obstacles to accessing knowledge, I believe."

She referred, as she's done in the past, to Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights and added, in accordance to the spirit of that Article, "everyone has the right to freely participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

To expect such egalitarian moves by publishers proved naturally naive.

In the early 2000s Elbakyan was doing her thesis on biometric scanning for consumer electronics. To access the research material she needed, she would have had to cough up a minimum of $300, a fortune back then for a student.

"For me, even the purchase of one such article would be a financial setback," Elbakyan told RT in an email. "So I had to go about acquiring all the articles by pirate means."

Around 2011, Elbakyan came across Fulltext - a portal where researchers could look for help on important source/reference material.

Soon after, in September 2011, she developed Sci-Hub: a site that effectively broke through practically all journal paywalls and provided access ('non legal') to tomes of scientific papers worldwide.

There are two broad steps to how Sci-Hub functions.

First, it tries to download a copy from LibGen - another similar database for pirated research content. The next step, if it can't retrieve the material from LibGen, is what will earn fan points with hackers: Sci-Hub dodges the paywalls in real-time using access keys that have been "donated" by other pro-piracy academics who have studied at institutions which had the required subscriptions (JSTOR, Springer, Sage, Elsevier and basically any high profile database). Result? You receive a PDF of the paper within a minute.

And for good peer-to-peer karma, a copy of that particular paper is immediately sent to LibGen for posterity.

It's nothing short of incredible.

Incidentally, around the time Elbakyan was developing Sci-Hub, another huge name was shaking up the establishment with his tech skills. It was towards the end of 2010 that boy genius Aaron Swartz used the Massachusetts Institute of Technology server to try and download the entire JSTOR academic research database, using a Python script he'd written called "Keep Grabbing That Pie."

Also read: Banksy just reminded us that Steve Jobs was the son of a Syrian immigrant

A quick recap for those unfamiliar with his story: Aaron is the guy who at age 12 developed Info Network - predecessor of sorts to Wikipedia.

At age 13 he developed Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the backbone of most of our Internet feeds. He went on to co-found Reddit, Creative Commons and SecureDrop, a portal now broadly used by news agencies to collect information from anonymous sources.

Slapped with multiple felony charges by the US government, Aaron was found hanging in his room in January 2013. He was 26.

In an interview to BigThink website, Elbakyan is quoted saying: "When I read about Aaron for the first time I thought, that's the guy who could be my best friend and collaborator."

Sadly, that particular US-Russia collaboration didn't materialise.

However, Elbakyan has certainly carried on the fight for freeing knowledge up in a manner that would have made Aaron proud. That she's made available about 43 million papers more than Aaron isn't even the biggest reason.

Someone's not impressed though

No prizes for guessing - Elbakayan is public enemy number one of the publishing market.

One of the world's largest scientific publishers Elsevier filed a lawsuit citing "irreparable harm" against Sci-Hub and in October 2015, a New York district court ruled in favoUr of Elsevier and instructed that the domain name be taken down.

Also read: Liberty! Fraternity!: Watch FTII students pushback on intolerance in Goa

But that in tech-terms amounts to zilch because one can always use another domain name to put the site back up again.

Which is what Sci-Hub did.

The chances of anything happening to Elbakyan or Sci-Hub seem slim, at least for the moment. The servers are in Russia and Elbakyan doesn't have any US assets. To actually shut the site down or recover monetary compensation out of this looks tough for Elsevier.

Even more damaging for Elsevier, and by extension for most niche publishers, is the loss of reputation and infamy it has built for itself.

Here's a site that started getting signatures of researchers against Elsevier's aggressive tactics.

And a piece on the Guardian where Harvard University spoke out against the rising cost of journals that even they, with their iconic place on the academic circuit, finds difficult to keep up with. The Harvard piece was published in 2012, around the same time Sci-Hub was setting up. Cornell had cancelled its Elsevier subscription way back in 2003, again because of costs.

Also read: Women in Iran's orchestra were just pulled off stage. Because they're female

A fight against the tight nexus of academic publishers may not be an easy one but Elbakyan has certainly made a stunning start. Perhaps she can take hope from Aaron's famous Guerilla Open Access Manifesto:

"Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge - we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?" "

Alexandra Elbakyan has, and for the sake of free knowledge, we're hoping she won't be the last.

Also read: Not the finest, but say hello to the first: Juggernaut's first story is here

Asad Ali

Asad Ali @asadali1989