Meet the pirate queen making academic papers free online - The Verge https://www.theverge.com/...8/16985666/alexandra-elbakyan-sci-hub-open-access-science-papers-lawsuit
Elbakyan studied the writings of Russian neurofuturist thinkers like Vladimir Ivanovich Vernadsky. In 2011, she attempted to create a Russian-language PLOS-style Open Access journal. (She failed to find enough scientists who were interested.) Later that year, Elbakyan even applied to the Skolkovo Innovation Center, Russia’s self-styled answer to Silicon Valley.
Political theory provided new growth to her evolving Open Access philosophy. Communism, a model of government-less society in which resources and opportunity are metered out with equality and impartiality, has never been successfully implemented. Nevertheless, it was a particularly seductive concept to Elbakyan. The collective ideals of communism entwined for her with the ideals of the scientific method. After all, science depends on shared data. History’s greatest scientific discoveries have all been made and shared, as scientists often say, from atop the shoulders of giants: their scientific predecessors who shared their research. To Elbakyan, science thrives only when scientists shout their discoveries to everyone.
According to Elbakyan, communism and science share a common mission, which she refers to as “scientific communism.” It’s a concept she came to borrow from the 20th century American sociologist Robert Merton, who founded the sociology of science, a study of science as a social practice. (Merton coined influential terms such as “self-fulfilling prophecy,” “role model,” and “unintended consequences.”) Most influential to Elbakyan were Merton’s “norms,” which were what he considered to be the defining characteristics of science: universalism, disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and, of course, communism. (Throughout our interview, she’s still quick to rattle off quotes from Merton, declaring, “The communism of the scientific ethos is incompatible with the definition of technology as ‘private property’ in a capitalistic economy.”)
Elbakyan’s scientific communism mirrors the Western association between democracy and information openness. (Take the commonly used American expression “the democratization of… ”) Her intellectual convictions informed the growing vehemence with which Elbakyan insisted that absolutely unfettered access was the only acceptable level of access the public should have to discoveries. Ultimately, she concluded that in an age where scientists can publish their research “directly on the internet,” or through paywall-free Open Access journals, traditional publishers will inevitably fade into obsolescence.
This question of what value publishers add was front and center in coverage on Elsevier and Elbakyan’s case. The New York Times asked, “Should All Research Papers Be Free?” When Science Magazine worked with Elbakyan to map Sci-Hub’s user statistics, it discovered that a quarter of Sci-Hub downloads were from the 34 richest countries on Earth. Elbakyan argues Sci-Hub is a tool of necessity, and its massive usership in poor countries seems to strengthen her case. But the 25 percent of users from wealthy countries suggests Sci-Hub is a tool of convenience, says James Milne, a spokesman for the Coalition for Responsible Sharing, a consortium that represents the interests of big publishers.
In 2012, she struck a partnership with LibGen, which had only archived books until then. LibGen asked Elbakyan to upload the articles Sci-Hub was downloading. Then, in 2013, when Sci-Hub’s popularity began to explode in China, she started using LibGen as an offsite repository. Instead of downloading and deleting new copies of papers or buying expensive hard drives, she retooled Sci-Hub to check if LibGen had a copy of a user’s requested paper first. If so, she pulled it from its archive.
That worked well until the domain LibGen.org, went down, deleting 40,000 papers Elbakyan had collected, probably because one of its administrators died of cancer. “One of my friends suggested to start actively collecting donations on Sci-Hub,” she says. “I started a crowdfunding campaign on Sci-Hub to buy additional drives, and soon had my own copy of the database collected by LibGen, around 21 million papers. Around 1 million of these papers [were] uploaded from Sci-Hub. The other[s], as I was told, came from databases that were downloaded on the darknet.” From then on, LibGen’s database would simply be her backup.
Elbakyan is reluctant to disclose much about how she secured access to so many papers, but she tells me that most of it came from exploiting libraries and universities’ subscriptions, saying that she “gained access” to “around 400 universities.”
In 2015, Elsevier sued the piracy site AvaxHome for $37.5 million. Then, the UK-based Publishing Association, of which Elsevier was a member, and the AAP, where Elsevier was joined by closely associated publisher, the American Chemical Society (ACS), also successfully filed an injunction against a slew of ebook pirates — including AvaxHome, LibGen, Ebookee, Freebookspot, Freshwap, Bookfi, and Bookre — mandating that ISPs block customers’ access to them. Later, it also attempted to force Cloudflare, an internet security service, to turn over logs that would identify the operators of LibGen and Bookfi.
Elsevier hadn’t gotten the laws it wanted, ones that would have allowed it to pressure ISPs, payment services, and other internet intermediaries to block sites accused of piracy. So instead, it steadily set court precedents that did the same thing.
Sci-Hub’s burgeoning reach and reputation painted a target on Elbakyan’s back. Nonetheless, by the time Elsevier took aim, Elbakyan was already a woman on a mission. Sci-Hub was about to become more to Elbakyan than a “side project.”
“With LibGen, I saw that it is possible to accumulate 10 million scientific articles,” she says. After that, she figured “[why] not download all the scientific articles that are currently listed in cross-reference database?” With PayPal now closed to her, she simply turned to bitcoin donations to keep feeding Sci-Hub’s growth.
Elbakyan had been pursuing a master’s program on public administration (which, she tells me, would’ve allowed her to make the “upgrade” to her living conditions she’d long been jonesing for) at Russia’s National Research University. She’d hoped it would let her influence internet information-sharing legislation. But in 2014, Elbakyan left, disappointed.
She switched to a master’s program in religious studies, where her thesis led her to research how ancient societies treated information distribution. Both the revelations about the ancient societies and their attitudes toward ”information openness,” and the “feeling that [public administration] wasn’t quite the direction that I wanted to go” led her to double down on Sci-Hub.
Elbakyan created several more backup copies of Sci-Hub’s database. She rewrote Sci-Hub’s code, starting from square one, so that the service could download papers automatically. Now, once users pointed Sci-Hub toward an article, the site would check every university proxy server until it found one through which it could download the paper, and would download it automatically. They didn’t have to manually browse the publisher’s website through Sci-Hub to find the articles anymore.
Elbakyan had defied Elsevier. Her former hobby had become her primary focus. Nothing would make her waiver from making Sci-Hub a titan of Open Access.
Until, that is, the Kremlin unintentionally accomplished what Elsevier couldn’t: it got Sci-Hub shut down — at least in Russia. After an isolationist policy enacted by the Kremlin sparked intense bickering between scientists and Elbakyan, she pulled the plug herself.
Shortly after the Dynasty controversy at home, Elbakyan discovered that Elsevier was suing her and LibGen abroad.
“I did not believe that it’s possible to win against such a well-funded, rich, and influential company,” says Elbakyan. Rather than fight the case, she’d just keep an eye on it from afar. Money aside, “I would have had to provide certain documents that potentially could have exposed me or my physical location.”
Elsevier’s lawsuit was a civil case, for which extraditing someone to the US from abroad to be tried is generally against the law. Still, Elbakyan worried about being extradited. “I do know about stories where hackers that left Russia or Ukraine for Europe or the United States were unexpectedly arrested.” Although, the main reference she cites is the arrest of Dmitry Zubaka, who had criminal charges against him for a cyberattack against Amazon. Nonetheless, since her last visit in 2010 to speak at Harvard, she’s had no intention of returning to the US.
Court transcripts reveal that Elsevier had been playing cat-and-mouse with Elbakyan, working with universities to block her access to the university proxies Sci-Hub used to access their journals. Elsevier’s technicians were able to identify many source IP addresses associated with university computing systems that looked suspicious. They alerted institutions about these breaches, so that the schools could block these proxies’ credentials. However, Elbakyan had penetrated too many universities, and not every school had the technical expertise to keep up.
Elsevier steadily shut down student accounts whose credentials Elbakyan was using to access Elsevier’s database, Science Direct. By doing this, it had “vastly reduced” her access to its articles. On Sci-Hub’s Twitter page, Elbakyan even complained about this, saying that “[due] to the huge amount of accounts that were closed recently we were forced to introduce limits on the maximum number of users, especially foreigners.” She had to prioritize the access of “former USSR countries,” says Elbakyan. “Access from China and Iran was blocked for some time because Sci-Hub couldn’t serve as many requests as were coming from these countries. She also made Sci-Hub inaccessible to Americans (except those using VPNs) — in part because of the number of download requests, but also because she wanted to avoid becoming a target for lawsuits.
Then, Elbakyan switched her strategy. As Elsevier’s technicians testified, instead of using university proxy servers to access Elsevier’s repository directly, Sci-Hub started using them just to obtain an authorization token. Then Sci-Hub could use the token to connect to the repository from a different IP address — no longer leaving an easy breadcrumb trail of the same handful of IP address being consistently used to access and download an outrageous number of papers. By the time the publisher had gone to trial, it still hadn’t figured out any effective workaround to this technique. But, Elsevier had found a different pressure point for enforcing piracy that would establish a precedent for another publisher to get something of a chokehold on Sci-Hub.
A week later, Elbakyan discovered she was being sued again, this time by the scientific society and publisher ACS. The suit was a long time coming. ACS publications rank among the most-covered by Sci-Hub. To date, Sci-Hub holds copies of 98.8 percent of all of ACS’s research. Until November, when ACS was awarded $4.8 million, she admits that she didn’t follow the case.
But ACS proved more formidable than Elsevier — winning not only the suit, but an injunction demanding that “any Internet search engines, web hosting and Internet service providers, domain name registrars, and domain name registries,” stop doing anything to make Sci-Hub’s operation — and piracy — possible.
Legal and tech activists like the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) immediately decried the injunction. It went too far, the EFF said, setting a precedent eerily similar to previously proposed legislation would’ve worked: ACS theoretically could strong-arm any service that could be seen as aiding Sci-Hub. Forcing internet intermediaries to enforce copyright claims by shutting down accused sites wholesale makes it possible for copyright holders to abuse claims of infringement, says Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney at the EFF. If a website can “disappear on command” without any oversight, there is no incentive to encourage copyright holders to be judicious. Even if a website simply advertises or links to another infringing site, or unintentionally has a few unauthorized reproductions of copyrighted works, not only could a copyright holder black out the site entirely, it would be relatively easy.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association (CCIA), a tech nonprofit with members such as Google, Intuit, Uber, and Microsoft, even filed an amicus brief against ACS’s injunction — just as it did when Elsevier, in its case, initially attempted to get a similar injunction — urging the court to drop it.
Sci-Hub is often called the Pirate Bay of science; the Pirate Bay itself was raided twice before it finally succumbed. “If nothing happens to me personally, then naturally I will try to continue Sci-Hub project myself,” Elbakyan says. If something were to happen, while her network of journal and institutional subscriptions might be lost, “the main resource of the project, being the scientific articles, they are already published on the internet.”
Elbakyan faces an uphill battle. ACS has yet to show what it defines as “active participation.” If Sci-Hub’s Twitter page were to get taken down again, it would hobble the word-of-mouth network perpetuating Sci-Hub and ACS’s current domain-name whack-a-mole.
As copyright holders continue establishing even more precedents of compelling ISPs to enforce copyright disputes, other publishers may well follow suit. The Trump administration has expanded ISPs’ ability to surveil customers. Net neutrality, which prevented ISPs from biasing speed, connectivity, and access to some sites over others, has been revoked as well, which means ISPs may get much more discretion in how they enforce piracy. These policy changes place Sci-Hub on a more tenuous footing in the US.
The legal campaigns against Sci-Hub have — through the Streisand effect — made the site more well-known than most mainstay repositories, and Elbakyan more famous than legal Open Access champions like Suber. The threat posed by ACS’s injunction against Sci-Hub has increased support for the site from web activists organizations such as the EFF, which considesr the site “a symptom of a serious problem: people who can’t afford expensive journal subscriptions, and who don’t have institutional access to academic databases, are unable to use cutting-edge scientific research.”
The effort may backfire. It does nothing to address disappointment scientists feel about how paywalls hide their work. Meanwhile, Sci-Hub has been making waves that might carry it further to a wider swath of both the public and the scientific community. And though Elbakyan might be sailing in dangerous waters, what’s to stop idealistic scientists who are frustrated with the big publishers from handing over their login credentials to Sci-Hub’s pirate queen?