The pursuit of knowledge is not a trivial task. It takes effort, resources and—in today’s age—money. Currently, access to scientific literature is severely limited because most academic publishers charge exorbitant fees to read the work of scientists. These charges not only restrict the general public from seeking available knowledge, but they also hinder the scientists that rely on such information to conduct research.
But there is one person out there fighting back. Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakhstani neuroscientist and software developer, launched a website (Sci-Hub) that shares published scientific data for free in 2011. A Pirate Bay for scientific journal articles —if you will—that currently hosts more than 58 million scientific papers.
While many see this as a revolutionary breakthrough for those in the pursuit of knowledge, there has been a decidedly cold response from those making money off of said knowledge. Publishing company Elsevier, which already has a strained relationship with the scientific community and is currently being boycotted by more than 15,000 scientists, has lashed out at Elbakyan and hit her with a lawsuit that is seeking millions of dollars in damages.
Elbakyan, however, refuses to take down her site, claiming that “everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation.” While she may be right, what she may not have is a case.
Publishing a scientific journal article is an arduous task for scientists. It can take years worth of data collection, requiring considerable time and resources. And, once a manuscript is written, the difficulty has only just begun. The paper must be deemed suitable by an editor and then undergo strict peer review, editing and, in some cases, further experimentation to ensure the conclusions are appropriate before publication. For reference, the top U.S. journal, Science, accepts less than 7 percent of submitted manuscripts. Contributing to science is no easy endeavor.
After finalization, publishing companies take ownership of the scientific work and can disseminate it as they see fit, which often means charging $40 for a single article. That can add up quick as a scientist may need to read several hundreds of articles to conduct meaningful research.
Acquiring a subscription to a scientific journal isn’t a very cost-effective alternative. While a yearly subscription to Paste Magazine may start around $50, subscribing to a single scientific journal usually goes for more than $10,000 per year. Now consider that there are currently an estimated 28,000 active journals and it is easy to see why even schools like Harvard and Cornell are having trouble footing such a hefty bill.
On the other side, publishing companies like Elsevier are making billions of dollars off of scientific content and would like nothing more than to maintain the status quo.
By compiling the largest open access database of scientific articles in the world, one that outpaces every university and government library in existence, Sci-Hub has allowed everyone on the planet an equal opportunity to pursue knowledge. However, since publishers hold the rights to these works, Sci-Hub has drawn comparisons to other sites that host pirated content.
Clearly there is a strong case for copyright infringement against Sci-Hub, but it is important to note that illegally downloading scientific research papers has very key differences than pirating other media. As opposed to the artists that create cinema and music, scientists don’t get paid for article downloads. On top of that, the editors and experts that review article submissions also don’t see a paycheck, as this work is seen as a service to the scientific community.
So who actually pays for scientific research? That would be people like you and me. Nearly all science is funded by government grants from agencies like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy, meaning scientific discovery is paid for by everyday taxpayers. Yet most of those that finance this research never have an opportunity to read it. Many see this injustice as evidence of a flawed system in desperate need of change.
Academic journals don’t fund research, they only profit from it.
Despite favorable legal decisions for Elsevier, the lawsuit against Sci-Hub and has not stopped Alexandra Elbakyan from hosting her open access site. Since Sci-Hub’s servers operate in Russia outside the jurisdiction of U.S. courts, Elbakyan has been able to avoid any damaging action and plans to keep the site live indefinitely.
To Elbakyan, it’s a matter of basic human rights. She believes that Elsevier’s business model is illegal and refers to Article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
In any case, the success of Sci-Hub has shown that there is a demand for knowledge and that the current system is not designed to promote intellectual discovery.
Joel Rindelaub is an active scientific researcher and Ph.D. chemist based in Minnesota.