There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
Some years ago, a university student in Kazakhstan took it upon herself to set free the vast trove of paywalled academic research. That student, Alexandra Elbakyan, developed Sci-Hub, an online tool that allows users to easily download paywalled papers for free.
Sci-Hub uses university networks to access subscription-only academic papers, generally without the knowledge of the academic institutions. When a user asks Sci-Hub to access a paid article, the service will download it from a university that subscribes to the database that owns it. As it delivers the user a pdf of the requested article, it also saves a copy on its own server, so that next time someone requests the paper, they can download the cached version.
Unsurprisingly, Elbakyan’s project has drawn the ire of publishers. Last year, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub and an associated website called Library Genesis for violating its copyright. The two websites “operate an international network of piracy and copyright infringement by circumventing legal and authorized means of access to the ScienceDirect database,” Elsevier’s lawyers wrote in a court filing, referring to the company’s subscription database.
A judge for the New York Southern District Court ruled in favor of the publisher, and Sci-Hub’s domain, sci-hub.org, was shut down. Soon, the service popped up again under a different domain.
But even if the new domain gets shut down, too, Sci-Hub will still be accessible on the dark web, a part of the Internet often associated with drugs, weapons, and child porn. Like its seedy dark-web neighbors, the Sci-Hub site is accessible only through Tor, a network of computers that passes web requests through a randomized series of servers in order to preserve visitors’ anonymity.
Illegal activity thrives on this part of the Internet, partly because its contents aren’t visible to search engines like Google. The Tor network makes it very difficult to know where an offending server is, allowing sites like Silk Road, a prominent drug marketplace, to survive for years. (Silk Road was finally shut down in 2013 and its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison.)
But the investigation that took down the Silk Road took up countless government resources. It’s unlikely the new Sci-Hub website would attract the same amount of negative attention, so the website is likely safe behind the many layers of encryption that protect sites on the dark web.
So why go through all this trouble to provide access to pirated academic research? In a letter submitted to the New York district court where she was being sued, Elbakyan said her experience as a student in Kazakhstan drove her to set up the website. Paying upwards of 30 dollars to access a paper is “insane,” she wrote, when researchers regularly need to access tens or even hundreds of articles.
Elbakyan says free access to academic research also helps promote researchers’ independence. “Today, subscription prices are very high; an individual person cannot pay them,” she wrote to me in an email. “You need to join one of the few available research institutions, and for that you need to conform to … standards that suppress creativity.”
Websites like Sci-Hub and Library Genesis have a lot of support from the academic community, including from the authors whose work is being traded for free in shadowy corners of the Internet.
In 2012, during a large-scale academic boycott of Elsevier, even well-endowed Harvard University announced it was having trouble paying large publishers’ annual fees. “We faculty do the research, write the papers, referee papers by other researchers, serve on editorial boards, all of it for free … and then we buy back the results of our labour at outrageous prices,” the former director of the university’s library told The Guardian. Well-organized boycotts and open-access movements continue to flourish in academia.
After Elsevier’s lawsuit against Sci-Hub succeeded late last year, a group of researchers, writers, and artists created a website with an open letter in support of Sci-Hub. Likening Elsevier to the the greedy businessman in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s The Little Prince, a character who spends all his time mindlessly accumulating a stockpile of stars for profit, the group wrote that the lawsuit was a “big blow” to researchers around the world.
“The system is broken,” the essay read. “It devalues us, authors, editors, and readers alike. It parasites on our labor, it thwarts our service to the public, it denies us access.”
There will always be techniques for accessing paywalled research for free, even without services like Sci-Hub. Some of them are much less complex than Elbakyan’s website: Researchers and scholars often use the hashtag #icanhazpdf on Twitter to ask fellow academics for paywalled articles. (There’s even been scholarly work published that analyzes the phenomenon—appropriately, the research is free online.)
But Sci-Hub’s ingenious methods automate the process, cut out middle men on Twitter, and don’t advertise the request for, essentially, pirated research. And Elbakyan says her website’s presence on the dark web will help keep it accessible even if legal action dismantles Sci-Hub’s new home on the easily accessible surface web.
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