How Academic Pirate Alexandra Elbakyan Is Fighting Scientific Misinformation

With its paywall, the publishing industry is crippling research. Sci-Hub is helping make research accessible.
June 8, 2021, 7:00pm
Alexandra Elbakyan
Alexandra Elbakyan. Image: 

Alexandra Elbakyan

In the decade since Alexandra Elbakyan founded Sci-Hub, science’s so-called “pirate queen” has amassed more than 85 million full-text research articles, which she’s made available, for free, to anyone who can track down her custom search engine. 

Sci-Hub uses myriad techniques, including shared passwords and bugs on publisher websites, to rip copyrighted papers, and share them for free. But that hasn’t stopped thousands of researchers, students, educators, and journalists from relying on the site for instantly-accessible scientific information. 

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Sci-Hub launched in 2011, when Elbakyan was a 22-year-old in Kazakhstan. “Before Sci-Hub there was no way to easily check if some scientific fact was actually true, because you need to check actual research journals that publish peer-reviewed information,” she told VICE via email. After Sci-Hub, you could check just about anything with the (unlawful) click of a button.

In the swirling chaos of the pandemic—and a new, or at least newly-acknowledged, era of digital disinformation—Sci-Hub kicked into overdrive. Its number of daily users has grown 20 percent, from 500,000 to 600,000, according to Elbakyan. During lockdown, people accessed articles about COVID-19 10 to 100 times more often than articles about other diseases. 

But the site’s future is uncertain. In 2016, the publishing giant Elsevier won a copyright infringement suit against Sci-Hub in the United States. The decision had little discernible consequence for Sci-Hub’s operations. “A lawsuit isn’t going to stop it, nor is there any obvious technical means,” Peter Suber, director of the Office for Scholarly Communications at Harvard University, told Science at the time. Everyone should be thinking about the fact that this is here to stay.” But technically, the site owes millions. 

Now, Sci-Hub is fighting another battle against Elsevier and other publishers in an Indian court. When the court asked Elbakyan to stop uploading new papers in December 2020, she complied. “I want Sci-Hub to be considered as [a] legal project,” she said via email. Elbakyan is also being investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice and the FBI. In the meantime, Sci-Hub, which was once an accessible and dynamic public library—one that moved almost as fast as the social media misinformation it countered—is quickly becoming an archive

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Philosophically, Sci-Hub is a particularly illicit outgrowth of the open access movement, which emerged in artist circles in the 1950s, and was adapted by computer scientists, physicists, and people in other fields. Today, more than 16,200 journals are open access by default, according to the Directory of Open Access Journals. And researchers have collectively uploaded millions of pre-print and other scientific articles to open-source repositories like arXiv, medRxiv, and others, including papers with early insights into COVID-19.

For Elbakyan, Sci-Hub is also part of a vision for what she calls “scientific communism,” according to a 2018 profile in The Verge. It’s an idea she’s subsequently found in the work of sociologist Robert Merton, who identified four scientific norms: universalism, disinterestedness, organized skepticism, and communism. By pursuing open access alternatives, Elbakyan hopes science can be accessible to everyone. 

Despite 10 years of Elbakyan’s hacktivism, scientific publishing largely remains an oligopoly, according to one 2015 analysis that found about half of all research is published by just five companies. That gives giant publishers outsized influence over scientific knowledge and how it spreads. Taylor & Francis, for example, owns more than 2,700 journals alone. For people without institutional access, 48-hour access to the PDF of a single research article typically costs $45. And institutional access is harder to maintain than ever: Between 2012 and 2020, for example, the average cost of chemistry periodicals grew 50 percent, according to the Library Journal. Many libraries are struggling to keep up.

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That may explain why many wealthy American and European cities, even those with one or more academic institutions, are still Sci-Hub hotspots, according to one map of site users. It’s true that Sci-Hub is more convenient than the legal routes; Elbakyan’s search engine requires only a link, a paper title, or a DOI (a unique code attached to every scientific research article) to generate a full-text PDF. But for others, Sci-Hub feels like a necessity. 

“I was in my first year of undergrad and was given an assignment which required me to read a paper [behind a paywall],” one molecular biology student in India, who wished to remain anonymous because of Sci-Hub’s legal issues, told me. A fellow student recommended Sci-Hub. “She also told me it was illegal and I should not tell any teacher about it.” Now, the student relies on the site for papers they could not otherwise afford access to. 

“With its paywall, the publishing industry is crippling research,” said an ocean scientist in France, who wished to remain anonymous due to legal concerns. Publishers routinely recommend a legal loophole: request a PDF from a corresponding author. But “it does not always work, even for very recent papers,” he told me. While some authors share their papers on repositories like ResearchGate and Academia.edu, others may change institutions, retire, die, or simply be unable to respond to every request. “The time and energy spent to chase papers is detrimental to the advancement of science,” he added. 

The same is true for journalists, who often have tight deadlines and limited resources, but also produce stories on complex topics with significant reach. After getting his first internship, one science journalist said he remembers posting on Facebook and asking friends in graduate school to share their logins to institutional libraries. A biologist recommended he try Sci-Hub instead. “I don’t think I’ve asked for a paper since,” he said. “For a short daily news story, there are two to three articles to skim, at least,” he added. “You could email the authors, and all these people have press offices, and they’re fantastic. But if you assume in the best case scenario it’s going to be [about] an hour for them to get back, that’s a lot of waiting around.” 

If nothing else, the pandemic has made it abundantly clear that bad information can be deadly. Instead of seeking the help of medical professionals, many people turned to unproven at-home treatments, like bleach baths, ivermectin, an anti-parasitic drug for horses, and chlorine dioxide. Now, people are forgoing the vaccine, in favor of pet herd immunity theories, fears of microchip implantation, or secret side effects. But experts agree it’s not enough to simply debunk misinformation—we have to proactively replace it with something reliable. Without people like Elbakyan, that work could only happen on the other side of a paywall.