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Meet the ‘Pirate Queen’ fighting to kill paywalls on research

Academic publishing might not seem like a particularly lucrative industry, but despite how dry and boring it might sound, it’s surprisingly profitable. Together, the world’s top publishers rake in more than $19 billion per year, which means academic publishing is almost on par with the music and film industries.

But there’s one big difference: Unlike the music and film industries, where the content creators get a large cut of the profits, researchers aren’t paid a single penny by the companies who publish their work. Instead, the publishers get research papers for free and then charge readers (often students, universities, and even the authors themselves) exorbitant fees to access them. As a result, these organizations often enjoy profit margins higher than those of Google or Coca-Cola.

Sci-Hub creator Alexandra Elbakyan sits in front of a computer.

In 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, then a 22-year-old student in Almaty, Kazakhstan, got fed up with this system and decided to throw a wrench in the gears. She created a program called Sci-Hub, a website reminiscent of The Pirate Bay that allows users to circumvent paywalls and download research articles for free.

Now, 10 years after she founded Sci-Hub, Elbakyan, who has been referred to as a “pirate queen” and “Robin Hood,” has found herself bogged down in lawsuits and investigations while she fights to provide the open access service that has become essential to the scientific community, particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“People expected it [would] be shut down very soon because of copyright violation,” Elbakyan told Digital Trends in an interview conducted via email. Few people expected the site to still be up, over t10 years later.

The birth of a slow-burning revolution

When Elbakyan was an undergraduate in spring 2009 at the Kazakh National Technical University, studying Information Technologies with a security specialization, she began her final project on the topic of brain-machine interfaces. While researching, she encountered articles that were paywalled. Paywalls didn’t phase Elbakyan — she’d been evading them since she was a teenager to download neuroscience books. But she wanted to make papers available to other researchers encountering the same problem who didn’t have her technological wherewithal.

In 2009, this was only a “blurry nonspecific idea,” Elbakyan wrote in her blog. After she graduated, she wanted to do bioengineering research and spent a few months working in neuroscience labs in Russia, Germany and the U.S. But Elbakyan found that her work wasn’t fulfilling and returned to Kazakhstan with dreams of bigger projects. She spent a few months freelancing as a web programmer, and finally began to code Sci-Hub. She launched the website on September 5, 2011.

A screenshot of the Sci-Hub homepage from 2016.

Sci-Hub became popular almost immediately, with Elbakyan running all aspects of it — from the programming and server configuration, to the social media and communications. It works by using a script that logs in to journals with online credentials from people or institutions with legitimate access, then downloads the content for the Sci-Hub user. (Elbakyan acknowledges that some of these online credentials may have been obtained through phishing, but denies that she has done the phishing herself.) Papers already accessed by Sci-Hub are kept in a repository to be retrieved for other users who request them.

Sci-Hub sparked a debate in the scientific community — what Elbakyan does is a violation of copyright law in most places — but she pushed back on this, using her core belief in Communism as justification.

“Communism is one of the basic ethic principles of science, and Sci-Hub implements exactly that principle,” she said. “The academic publishing business is based on human rights violation[s] and is unethical.”

Legal battles and backlash

In its first year of existence, Sci-Hub users downloaded nearly 1,800,000 PDFs. By 2016, Sci-Hub hosted over 50 million papers, with millions of download requests coming from all over the world. At this time, the publisher with the most requested articles, according to Science, was Elsevier, a behemoth scientific publisher based in the Netherlands.

Elbakyan’s work conflicted with the journal’s ability to profit off the articles on its sites, so in 2015, Elsevier sued Elbakyan in the United States. Elbakyan, who by then had moved to Moscow, wrote a letter to the judge, defending Sci-Hub and pointing out that the researchers themselves didn’t even make money from their work published on Elsevier.

“Elsevier is not a creator of these papers,” she wrote. “All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects.”

Alexandra Elbakyan, founder of Sci-Hub, sits at a table.

In October 2015, the Southern District Court of New York ordered that the Sci-Hub website be taken down and Elbakyan pay $15 million in damages to Elsevier for copyright infringement. Elbakyan wasn’t in the U.S., so there was no way to force her to pay up. The website did go down briefly, but just days later, Sci-Hub popped back up, with a new overseas domain. (When Digital Trends accessed the site, the domain was from Wallis and Futuna, a tiny island territory of France in the South Pacific.) According to Elbakyan, the media coverage of the lawsuit boosted her site’s usership.

But the lawsuits didn’t stop there. In 2017, Elbakyan received notice that she was being sued by the American Chemical Society, which was ultimately awarded $4.8 million. In December 2020, Elsevier, the American Chemical Society, and another publisher, Wiley, sued in India, sparking an outcry from scientists across the country, who relied heavily on Sci-Hub for their work.

“I expected that Sci-Hub [would] become legal many years ago,” Elbakyan said. “It is obvious that when scientists are using it to do their work, they are not criminals.”

On top of the lawsuits, a December 2019 report from the Washington Post cited an anonymous former senior U.S. intelligence official who said he believed Elbakyan was working with the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency. Elbakyan denied this. In May 2021, she received an email saying that the FBI was requesting information regarding her Apple account.

“Sci-Hub is a very cool and advanced project, hence government must be behind it,” Elbakyan said, when speculating on why the FBI suspected her of working with the GRU. “They think: ‘How it is that a woman can be a genius? That is impossible!’”

She also thought that because Sci-Hub used thousands of passwords to access university libraries, perhaps the U.S. government suspected the GRU had infiltrated the universities.

The fight continues

Despite these controversies, Elbakyan’s work took on a renewed importance to the scientific community during the COVID-19 pandemic. During the lockdown, Elbakyan says, the number of Sci-Hub users increased by around 100,000 and articles about COVID were downloaded at a rate far surpassing that of other diseases. She said she’s received letters from health practitioners, saying how Sci-Hub helps them with their work.

Currently, Sci-Hub has over 84 million papers in its database, according to its website, and users generally download between two million and three million each day. Elbakyan has observed that more scientific articles are available in open access than ever before, due to the influence of her work. But Sci-Hub continues to be embroiled in lawsuits and investigations. In January 2020, Sci-Hub’s Twitter account was suspended for violating the site’s counterfeit policy. And Sci-Hub has frozen downloads during the trial in India.

“I am trying to create some kind of a movement for a free knowledge,” Elbakyan said. “So far, I am not very successful with this political fight, but I hope for a better future!”

Outside of Sci-Hub, Elbakyan is pursuing a degree in Theory of Knowledge at the Institute of Philosophy at the Russian Academy of Sciences. In the humanities, most of her peers haven’t even heard of Sci-Hub.

“I do not want to run Sci-Hub indefinitely, because I have many other ideas, plans, and projects,” Elbakyan said. “But I want for Sci-Hub to win, and for me to be recognized as the person who made scientific knowledge free.”

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