An Interview With Sci-Hub’s Alexandra Elbakyan on the Delhi HC Case – The Wire Science

Alexandra Elbakyan at a talk in 2010. Photo: Apneet Jolly/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

On December 24, 2020, the Delhi high court conducted its first hearing for the ongoing case against Alexandra Elbakyan’s website Sci-Hub, an online repository of academic literature that allows users free access to its contents.

It is not unknown that websites like Sci-Hub and Libgen (portmanteau of ‘Library Genesis’) are important for scholars and students alike in India who can’t afford individual subscriptions to academic journals.

However, academic publishers Elsevier Ltd., Wiley Pvt. Ltd. and the American Chemical Society sued Sci-Hub and Libgen for copyright infringement in India and asked for the country’s IT ministry to block access to these sites.

The court’s next hearing is scheduled for February 23. In an exclusive interview to The Wire Science, Alexandra Elbakyan spoke of her own days in college, where she said she first felt the need for a tool like Sci-Hub, the legal issues between Elsevier and Sci-Hub around the world, and the tension between piracy and sharing.

Excerpts from the interview are presented below, with a few minor edits for style.

Could you tell me about your own college experience at Satbayev University, Kazakhstan, in the absence of portals like Sci-Hub? Were there specific difficulties you faced that led to the conception of Sci-Hub?

I first stumbled upon academic paywalls when I was in my final year of study. I studied information technologies, and specialised in infosecurity. Since middle school I was interested in neuroscience, too, so I wanted to combine both fields in my final year project. I started to work on brain-machine interfaces and set up a task to develop a system that can use brainwaves as passwords, in the same way you can use your fingerprint to unlock a computer.

I started searching for information and that was when I first learned that academic journals exist at all. Today, there are people who use Sci-Hub while they study in school, but I was quite old when I started with research.

So, I located the articles that were interesting for my topic on websites such as IEEE or ScienceDirect and almost all of them were paywalled. I was not concerned. For a long time since school, I was using various technologies which made science movies, books and software freely available. So I was sure there was some website to download academic articles for free.

I googled and googled but found nothing! Then I was quite surprised and frustrated, but after a long search I found some forums such as passfans or myescience where people shared passwords to access university libraries. Using these passwords, I was able to enter universities that had subscriptions to these journals and download articles for free.

Then I got an idea to develop a software program that people can use to download academic articles automatically. The design I imagined then was quite different from Sci-Hub, but it was the same idea. I tried discussing it on forums but it did not cause a lot of interest, and I forgot about it for a while. I graduated from university and travelled abroad. I developed Sci-Hub two years later.

Despite a series of lawsuits for copyright infringement, Sci-Hub is not widely thought of as a pirate, and has found acceptance among scholars. What would you say about this?

Today, most scientists view the academic publishing system as fundamentally unjust and exploitative. The problem is that publishers are not actual creators of these works, scientists are – they do all the work, and academic publishers simply use their position of power in the Republic of Science to extract unjust profits. Sci-Hub does not enable piracy where creative people are deprived of the reward they deserve. It is a very different thing.

What does one mean by the word ‘piracy’? Only after several years was I able to comprehend how some people use this word in a bad sense. Most scientists do not care about the legal status at all. They want to do science, and they need to access academic literature to do it, and these legal things — they are in a different reality that scholars do not belong to at all, another planet or a different universe.

How much do authors earn from the money paid to cross an academic publisher’s paywall? Can you talk about how publishers exercise their power?

The careers of researchers depend on journal publications. To receive funding or secure positions at the university, a scientist must have publications in ‘high-impact’ academic journals. Most of these journals today belong to corporations like Elsevier, Wiley and Springer-Nature.

Researchers do the actual work: they invent the hypothesis, do the experiments and write the articles describing the results of these experiments. Then they publish this article in an academic journal. They cannot simply put this article online on their blog: to be recognised as research work, it must be published in a respectable peer-reviewed journal. So they send their articles to publishers like Elsevier, Wiley or Springer.

Publishers send articles they have received to other scientists for peer-review. Reviewers give their opinion on whether the work should be accepted in a journal or not, or if some additional work must be done. Based on these reviews, the article is published or rejected.

Both reviewers and scientists work for free. They do not earn any compensation from the academic publisher. Here, academic publishers work as organisers of the academic community, but not as creators. The work of the academic publisher is organisational and not creative.

And yet, Elsevier Ltd. has sued Sci-Hub in the US, Sweden, Belgium and France, lobbied for a block in Russia, and now it has filed a lawsuit in India. It’s often the same group of publishers that takes action against Sci-Hub: Elsevier, Springer Nature, Wiley, the American Chemical Society. Why do you think it is this group?

Because most academic works and the most popular works in Sci-Hub’s database are from these publishers, and Elsevier is the leading one in numbers. These companies form an oligopoly that currently controls all academic communication. These publishers alone perhaps control the majority of science. They are key players.

Sci-Hub’s view is that science should not be controlled by a few big companies but it should be a dynamic network of learned societies.

In the last hearing on January 6, 2021, the Delhi High Court deemed the case to be of public importance, and allowed scholars to register their concerns with the court. You claimed many Twitter users were tweeting at the Sci-Hub account and you were archiving these tweets. But on January 8, Twitter suspended Sci-Hub’s account. Can you tell me the extent to which Twitter’s move affected your ability to defend your case?

On Sci-Hub’s Twitter account, anyone could see right away that no researcher today supports what publishers do and everyone thinks that academic research should be free to access. It was very obvious and visible on the Sci-Hub account, and people who wanted to support Sci-Hub had a place to do it.

Now of course after the Sci-Hub account has been banned there are fewer people voicing their opinions about Sci-Hub, because the discussion platform is gone, so there are fewer supportive comments, and the support of Sci-Hub is not as obvious as it has previously been. However, in my view it will not seriously affect the ability to defend the current case in India.

The number of cases against you have shot up in the last five years. Would you be comfortable about sharing how this has affected you as an individual?

Researchers depend on Sci-Hub and I feel a need to support its users, I cannot simply abandon them. I love academic literature and knowledge, and I love working on Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub is nine years old already and it has become a fundamental part of my life. I never thought about abandoning Sci-Hub actually. I have a dream to make academic literature free and I work on it consistently.

Currently the lawsuits have not targeted or affected me directly. I was ordered to pay Elsevier 15 million dollars in damages but I am able to ignore a United States order right now. But what might happen in the future?

What would you say to those who argue that it is naïve to expect a system of unhindered exchange of information to thrive, and that publishing houses have a right over the knowledge that they publish?

What is naive and dangerous is to expect science to thrive when information exchange is hindered. And as I said before, science should not be controlled by a few big corporations. That is detrimental to science.

Sidharth Singh is part of the faculty of critical thinking at Ashoka University and an independent journalist.

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