Academic hack heard round the world
A researcher from Kazakhstan, Alexandra Elbakyan, in 2011 created a system know as Sci-Hub that has since unlocked almost 50 million paywalled academic articles. Elbakyan claims, “We have already downloaded most paywalled articles to the library … we have almost everything!” According to Science Alert, rather than attempting to steal and store everything at once, her system waits for someone to request an article, then (if it’s not already pirated somewhere) pretends to be a university with a subscription to the journal. As Sci-Hub returns the paper, it keeps a copy (or leaves it on another site), allowing the system to answer the next request faster. That means the archive keeps growing as new material is published.
Of course, Elbakyan was working from an earlier generation of code, which built off earlier work, and so on. That’s the way the giant underworld of pirated information works. Now, for more or less the same reason that drug deals and child pornography are so hard to stop, the corporate masters of the academic universe are coping with a major breach.
The technical aspect is one story; another is why are people illegally downloading copyrighted materials in the first place? Well, one obvious reason is—as journalists, librarians, academics, and anyone else looking for scholarly material is well aware—academic journals and individual articles have become prohibitively expensive. Elbaykan, who studied at Kazakhstan University, explained, “Prices are very high, and that made it impossible to obtain papers by purchasing. You need to read many papers for research, and when each paper costs about 30 dollars, that is impossible.”
Another part of the story is that for-profit publishers, like the world’s largest one, Elsevier, are hugely profitable while relying on unpaid labor of academic writers, reviewers, and editors (whose salaries are paid by the same institutions that also pay institutional subscriptions—to get their knowledge back).
Sci-Hub was found to be in violation of copyright laws and was shut down by a court order in October of last year—in the USA. But it moved to a new domain in Russia, and if that gets shut down too it could move to a “dark net” space. Elbakyan says it could survive even harsher attacks, although using it would become more inconvenient. (The American Sociological Association journals, published under contract with Sage, are among the content Sci-Hub serves up in apparent violation of US law.)
It’s not that information does or doesn’t want to be free, but it is certainly the case that information travels very light. It’s hard to keep knowledge pinned down. As the legal battle goes on, and publishers invest in new technology to prevent access to what they’re selling, the reading public is increasingly frustrated that it appears their money—through individual sales, or private or institutional subscription fees, as well as government research support—is being spent as much to keep knowledge away from people as to make it available for public benefit.