For those of you not up to speed on that story, here’s a brief summary from the post, Remembering Internet Prodigy and Activist Aaron Swartz (1986-2013): Your Life is an Inspiration:

Aaron ran afoul of the law due to his actions in the fall of 2010 when he downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the nonprofit online database JSTOR.  While JSTOR could have pursued charges against Aaron for his activities, they decided against it.  However, our Federal Government was not so kind.  They decided to make an example of Aaron and charged him with multiple felonies.  Charges that carried up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.  Aaron was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment this past Friday, in an apparent suicide.

Many contend, and I agree with them, that the U.S. government is responsible for driving Aaron to his death by going after him as if he was a mass murderer for an act of civil dissidence.

Interestingly enough, attempts to scare others from following in his footsteps have backfired spectacularly, as the actions of 27-year old Alexandra Elbakyan of Kazakhstan demonstrate.

As reported by the Washington Post:

Alexandra Elbakyan is a highbrow pirate in hiding.

The 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan is operating a searchable online database of nearly 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles, shattering the $10 billion-per-year paywall of academic publishers.

Elbakyan has kept herself beyond the reach of a federal judge who late last year issued an injunction against her site, noting that damages could total $150,000 per article — a sum that Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis, a journal in her database, could help calculate. But she is not hiding from responsibility.

Elbakyan is pursuing a master’s degree in the history of science while pursuing the worldwide liberation of knowledge from, as she sees it, the tyranny of for-profit publishers. Her ideology was shaped growing up in a former Soviet republic where access to information and the Internet was difficult.

Many academics, university librarians and longtime advocates for open scholarly research are closely following Elbakyan’s efforts. They believe she is finally giving academic publishers their Napster moment, a reference to the illegal music-sharing service that disrupted and permanently altered the industry. 

“While we don’t condone fraud and using illegal sources, I will say that I appreciate how she is shining a light on just how out of whack the system is of providing easy access to basic information that our universities and scholars need to advance science and research,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, an organization that advocates for open access to research. “This has been a problem for decades.”

Researchers sign over the copyright and provide their work, often taxpayer funded, free to publishers who then get other researchers to review the papers — also free. The publishers then sell journal subscriptions — some titles cost more than $5,000 a year — back to universities and the federal government. And if someone wants an article, that costs about $35, so that person is paying for the research and to read the results.

Sounds like a racket to me. Taxpayers fund the stuff, professors don’t get compensated for their work, and then the public gets no access. Research papers funded by the taxpayer should at the very least made freely available within a short and reasonable period of time.

“That means that I, as a taxpayer, (am) paying for the research and paying again for the benefit of reading it,” a man who identified himself as John Dowd wrote to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy as part of a forum on public access. “This seems patently unfair.”

Critics also say that publishers raise prices faster than inflation — each side argues pricing changes in differing and confusing ways — and further increase their revenue by continually adding new journals for universities to subscribe to individually or in packages. There are now 28,100 journals publishing 2.5 million articles a year. Expenses for journals and other subscriptions have risen 456 percent since 1986, according to the Association of Research Libraries.

For researchers whose libraries have cut back on journal spending or for those working in Kazakhstan and other developing countries, spending $35 per paper or using interlibrary loans is, they complain, too onerous and slows down their research. Some trade articles on Twitter and Reddit.

As a species we are shooting ourselves in the foot by keeping this stuff in the shadows. There are ten of thousands of brilliant minds in poor countries that could be changing the world if they had better access to research. I’m not saying everything needs to be free immediately, but clearly the status quo is preposterous and needs to be disrupted in a major way.

Elbakyan has studied neuroscience and consciousness in labs at Georgia Tech and Albert-Ludwigs University in Freiburg, Germany. At first, she pirated papers for herself and other researchers. She noticed so many requests that she decided to automate the process, setting up Sci-Hub four years ago.

Sci-Hub connects to a database of stolen papers. If a user requests a paper in that database, Sci-Hub serves it up. If the paper is not there, Sci-Hub uses library passwords it has collected to find a paper, provides it to the searcher, then dumps the paper in the database. The site can be clunky to use, often sending users to Web pages in foreign languages.

The industry watched closely as Sci-Hub use grew, with more than 150,000 stolen papers downloaded per day, according to Elbakyan. Although publishers say those downloads represent a small fraction of all papers legally obtained, the industry decided to fight back last year.

A judge issued a preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub. Elbakyan simply switched domains, keeping the database available.

Her efforts bring to mind Aaron Swartz, a prominent computer programmer in Boston who was charged with computer fraud for allegedly stealing thousands of academic papers from JSTOR, a large repository. He later killed himself.

Publishers acknowledge they can probably never catch up to Elbakyan, yet they are adamant that Sci-Hub will not harm them or evolve into a future business model the way that Napster ultimately led to Apple’s iTunes — and dramatic revenue losses for record labels.

But the risk for publishers is that if library funding struggles continue, forcing deep cutbacks on subscriptions, professors will turn to Sci-Hub more, causing a slow erosion of the industry. A recent survey by University of Southern California and California State University librarians of more than 250 academics found that 41 percent “don’t care” about copyright. Thirty percent think “information should be free.”

Those are interesting and encouraging figures.

“People often say to me, ‘You don’t pay the authors. You don’t pay the reviewers. You hardly print anymore. The Web is free. Why do you charge?’” said H. Frederick Dylla, the former director of the American Institute of Physics and board member of the Association of American Publishers. “It sounds like a compelling argument. But it actually isn’t.”

Albert Greco, a publishing expert at Fordham University who is working on a book about scholarly publishing, said those making that argument are forgetting everything they learned or should have learned in economics class.

“There are costs,” he said. “Does The Washington Post have a paywall?”


Couple of points here. First of all, I can’t remember the last time the Washington Post blocked me from reading an article. Secondly, the Washington Post pays its content creators, these academic research paper publishers do not. Plus the work is often taxpayer funded. It’s an absolutely ridiculous argument.

“So is it fair then if some high-school student wants to really follow the Supreme Court and doesn’t have the money to pay?” Greco said. “Life is a bitter mystery. We can’t give everything away for free. It’s not that kind of country.”

He’s right, it’s not that kind of country…yet. As I’ve said over and over, the entire U.S. economy is a rigged fraud. All it takes is a little research, but this is true of basically every major industry and it’s hurting people. This academic journal business model appears to be no exception. It looks like a racket.

Whether Elbakyan’s actions and the resulting controversy fuel a massive disruption to the industry, it is clear, critics say, that for-profit academic publishing is facing regulatory and competitive head winds.

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy is mandating that agencies funding more than $100 million in research require the final, peer-reviewed version of the manuscript — if not the published paper — to be freely available within 12 months of publication.

A movement for open-access journals is building momentum, with about 7,300 now in circulation.

How this all ends, nobody really knows.

In the meantime, Elbakyan is adding to her collection of stolen papers every day.

Where is she?

“The exact location is secret,” she said.

Can she ever be stopped?

“It depends on my expertise,” she said. “Can I outsmart these guys?”

Or has she already?

Whether you agree with her or not, this is a very brave woman. I wish her the best of luck.

For related articles, see:

Remembering Internet Prodigy and Activist Aaron Swartz (1986-2013): Your Life is an Inspiration

Americans Have Been Turned Into Peasants – It’s Time to Fight Back

Charting America’s Descent Into Peasantry

In Liberty,
Michael Krieger