Professionalism/Alexandra Elbakyan and Sci-Hub

Sci-Hub is a website established by Alexandra Elbakyan in 2011 that allows users to have free open access to scholarly articles. Elbakyan described the site as “The first pirate website in the world to provide mass and public access to tens of millions of research papers.”[1] The website provides access to 85.2% of paywalled articles through the use of institutional networks to gain subscription access to publications.[1] Sci-Hub has been found to provide access to more articles than alternative access websites, including PubMed, ResearchGate, and Google Scholar.[2] While a portion of the institutional credentials is donated to Sci-Hub, others are potentially obtained through hacking or phishing.[3][4] While Sci-Hub has received support in some academic circles for its open access to articles and its opposition to the status quo in publishing, it has also received criticism for its illegality and alleged lack of academic integrity.

HistoryEdit

Alexandra Elbakyan was inspired to create Sci-Hub by her use of anonymizer websites to access LiveJournal from Kazakhstan, in which the blog site was restricted.[5] Since its founding in 2011, Sci-Hub has received a steadily growing number of article download requests each year.[1] The website received over 28 million download requests in 2015 and had access to 62 million articles in 2017.[1][6] One reason for the growth in demand for Sci-Hub is the increase in publishers’ access prices for articles. This rise in prices was caused by the historical consolidation and lack of competition of publishers.[7]

In 2015, Elsevier filed a lawsuit against Sci-Hub in the United States District Court. Sci-Hub was forced to suspend its domain names and stop distribution of Elsevier's works, but additional domains were opened outside the United States. Sci-Hub did not respond to Elsevier's claims and in 2016, Elbakyan was ordered to pay the latter $15 million.[1] In 2017, the American Chemical Society (ACS) filed a second lawsuit against Sci-Hub and Elbakyan was ordered to pay an additional $4.8 million. However, as Elbakyan is currently outside of United States jurisdiction, she does not intend to pay either publisher.[1]  As of 2019, Elbakyan is under investigation by the United States Justice Department for potential links to Russian intelligence, possibly through Sci-Hub, but she has denied these claims.[8]

Ethical Arguments in Support of Sci-HubEdit

Open AccessEdit

Sci-Hub provides open access to journal articles, which supporters claim allows widespread access to knowledge. Based on a 2016 study, most Sci-Hub users claim that they download pirated articles because they do not otherwise have access to them or because they object to publishers’ profits from the literature.[9] Elbakyan criticizes paywalls on academic articles and argues that “practices of such companies like Elsevier are unacceptable, because they limit distribution of knowledge.”[10] Consequently, one of the missions of Sci-Hub is to “fight inequality in knowledge access across the world.”[11]

Researchers who support Sci-Hub often believe that “There’s a universalistic aspect to science, where you want it to be available to everyone.”[7] Some researchers refer to scientists as “slaves to publishers,” as the former provide the research articles and the majority of quality control, while the latter sell the work at “vastly inflated price[s].”[12] Researchers in developing nations have, in particular, benefited from Sci-Hub. Based on a 2005 study, 56% of medical institutions in countries with a gross national product below $1,000 per capita had no journal subscriptions.[13] In 2015, the three countries with the most Sci-Hub downloads were Iran, China, and India.[14] However, awareness of Sci-Hub in developing nations remains low. A study of six Latin American countries found that “four out of every five students were unaware of Sci-Hub despite it being a very valuable resource for obtaining scientific literature.” Despite this, the use of Sci-Hub in developing nations is growing as more people become aware of its potential.[15]

Changing the Status-QuoEdit

Sci-Hub is ultimately a goal of creating easily accessible academic literature and research.[16] The current website is a way of changing how things are done in order to achieve that goal. Elbakyan did not intend for the website to be an illegal means of obtaining papers. Sci-Hub instead “advocate[s] for … copyright law to be repealed or changed" and represents an “impatience with the speed of change." [17][18] Elbakyan complains that, as a student, paying a large sum for a paper “is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research.” [19] Her belief in open access is also in response to the “ever-increasing subscription pricing in a time of record-low publishing costs.” [20] Publishers focus on the threat to their income instead of addressing the underlying issues that created Sci-Hub. Instances of publishers “attacking academics who present information” about Sci-Hub are not uncommon.[21] In 2013, Elsevier issued thousands of takedown notices to researchers and universities whose articles were published on free, open access websites, including Sci-Hub.[22]

Need for Change Shown by COVID-19Edit

The COVID-19 pandemic that arose late 2019 into early 2020 shows the necessity of changing the status quo in the academic publishing field. The international nature of the pandemic “has resulted in an unprecedented level of collaboration among researchers worldwide.” [23] The fast-paced evolution of the situation exposed that “the longstanding research publication model … doesn’t work when a critical need arises for rapid dissemination of data.” [24] Edward Campion, an executive editor with the New England Journal of Medicine, asserts that “the responsible thing … is to make all research freely available during epidemics … where there are people at risk.” [24] Sci-Hub was one of the first websites to release content with “more than 5,000 non-paywalled articles on coronaviruses” within a month of the virus surfacing in January 2020.[25] It was not until two months later, when the World Health Organization declared pandemic status that publishers were urged “to voluntarily agree to make their COVID-19 and coronavirus-related publications … immediately accessible.” [26] The pandemic displays how “publicly available knowledge can save lives,” even when the world may not be facing a pandemic.[26]

Sci-Hub as Civil DisobedienceEdit

Civil disobedience is a “refusal to obey governmental demands” as a “means of forcing concessions from the government” [27] Elbakyan's motives behind Sci-Hub are not to bypass copyright laws for the sake of breaking them, but to incite change in those laws. Civil disobedience movements throughout history involved breaking laws that were deemed unfair or unnecessary. Approximately ten billion US dollars are spent in publishing costs each year, while open access publishing would only cost around two hundred million US dollars.[20] Publishers claim that Elbakyan uses Sci-Hub “to steal their content” when said content is “the knowledge of the world that they have been holding hostage for a gigantic ransom.” [20] Elbakyan's stance puts people and the distribution of knowledge before “private monetary interests.” [20]

Arguments in Opposition to Sci-HubEdit

LegalityEdit

Sci-Hub hosts copyrighted academic papers without publisher permission, which is a violation of copyright law. Sci-Hub openly opposes copyright law, calls itself a “pirate website,” and “advocate[s] for the cancellation of intellectual property.” [28] Elbakyan insists that “Sci-Hub always intended to be legal,” but makes the case that the laws should be changed to meet Sci-Hub rather than the other way around.[17] While the defense of restricting information required to continue scientific research behind prohibitive pay-walls is compelling, it is not a legal defense, unlike the “fair use doctrine” defense in United States copyright law.

Sci-Hub uses anonymously donated credentials of individuals from academic institutions to download these papers to the Sci-Hub repository.[29] This use of another's credentials to log into a website that one does not have access to is a fraudulent act and a violation of the United States Computer Fraud and Abuse Act of 1986 and its amendments.[30] This legislation has been used to prosecute Americans, such as Aaron Swartz, who have mass download academic papers. Sci-Hub still provides its services to the world because Elbakyan does not operate in the United States, so injunctions can only be carried out by cooperating countries with the required extradition laws. The two countries she is suspected to operate from, Russia and Kazakhstan, are not such countries.[31] Elbakyan does not disclose her current location to avoid extradition and the injunction payments she owes.[32]

End User IssuesEdit

To ensure that Sci-Hub's service can continue when lawsuits force specific iterations to shut down, Sci-Hub must change its domains and host its servers in countries with lax copyright infringement legislation or enforcement. While not inherently dangerous, this makes it difficult to distinguish between Elbakyan's version of Sci-Hub or those made by individuals aligned with Sci-Hub versus malicious ones. The latter distribute academic PDFs with custom JavaScript malware attached.[33] In extreme cases, it is possible for an organization to take over a mirror of Sci-Hub or host their own as a type of sting operation for users of the website, as the Dutch government did in 2017 with a popular illicit market website.[34] Historically, copyright holders, with the help of internet service providers, have followed IP addresses to physical addresses to strong arm film, television, and music pirates into paying fines.[35] While Elbakyan and Sci-Hub incur risk and attention by providing illegal services, end users are not protected from risks that plague piracy websites.

Academic IntegrityEdit

A criticism of Sci-Hub is that the website compromises academic integrity that is provided by traditional publishers. In its 2015 injunction against Sci-Hub, Elsevier claimed that the former “risks the spread of bad science,” as it does not correct or retract articles with flawed conclusions.[36] Researchers try to avoid having their work be accessible through Sci-Hub, as they believe that “if an academic has a paper in Nature or Science, that’s seen as their passport to their next grant or promotion.” [7] Elsevier also argued that Sci-Hub detracts from publishers' funding of other projects, as the website impedes publishers from gathering usage statistics, which affects their services and subsequently their revenues.[36] Another flaw of Sci-Hub is that it does not provide tools for researchers to connect to related studies, as the site only shows stored PDFs through the direct DOI provided by the user. Publishers offer services that Sci-Hub does not, such as curation of related content and keyword searches of papers, titles, and authors.

Generalizable ImplicationsEdit

The conflict between Sci-Hub, publishers, and the law is indicative of the growing issues of ownership and access, as they expand to more digital spaces globally. The concept of ownership is strained in the digital age. For example, ownership of a physical copy of a film is only “purchasing access to the motion picture which affords only the right to access the work according to the format’s particular specifications,” not ownership of the content.[37] In the case of Sci-Hub, one woman, not a team of individuals, exposed how lucrative it is for publishers to hold copyrights and manage their access, even if access to essential research is complicated and expensive at best and impossible to obtain at worst.[5] Piracy is usually the resort when access to content is limited. According to Valve co-founder Gabe Newell, “Piracy is almost always a service problem and not a pricing problem.” [38] While he refers to the digital game store his company operates, he insists that piracy rates can be reduced by offering services with financial worth that can compete with the hassles of obtaining an illegal, but free, product.

ConclusionsEdit

Sci-Hub is an inevitable consequence of the traditional for-profit publishing model and is one of the tools used by proponents of the growing open access movement. Despite its convenience and utility to academics worldwide, the website faces immense legal challenges in regards to piracy and user privacy. It remains to be seen whether Sci-Hub will have long-term impacts on copyright laws.

ReferencesEdit

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