ILLEGAL PAYWALL WORKAROUNDS
Meet the Robin Hood of Science
by Simon Oxenham
“On the evening of November 9th, 1989, the Cold War came to a dramatic end with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Four years ago another wall began to crumble, a wall that arguably has as much impact on the world as the wall that divided East and West Germany. The wall in question is the network of paywalls that cuts off tens of thousands of students and researchers around the world, at institutions that can’t afford expensive journal subscriptions, from accessing scientific research.
On September 5th, 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan, created Sci-Hub, a website that bypasses journal paywalls, illegally providing access to nearly every scientific paper ever published immediately to anyone who wants it. The website works in two stages, firstly by attempting to download a copy from the LibGen database of pirated content, which opened its doors to academic papers in 2012 and now contains over 48 million scientific papers. The ingenious part of the system is that if LibGen does not already have a copy of the paper, Sci-hub bypasses the journal paywall in real time by using access keys donated by academics lucky enough to study at institutions with an adequate range of subscriptions. This allows Sci-Hub to route the user straight to the paper through publishers such as JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier.
After delivering the paper to the user within seconds, Sci-Hub donates a copy of the paper to LibGen for good measure, where it will be stored forever, accessible by everyone and anyone. This was a game changer. Before September 2011, there was no way for people to freely access paywalled research en masse; researchers like Elbakyan were out in the cold. Sci-Hub is the first website to offer this service and now makes the process as simple as the click of a single button. As the number of papers in the LibGen database expands, the frequency with which Sci-Hub has to dip into publishers’ repositories falls and consequently the risk of Sci-Hub triggering its alarm bells becomes ever smaller.
Elbakyan explains, “We have already downloaded most paywalled articles to the library … we have almost everything!” This may well be no exaggeration. Elsevier, one of the most prolific and controversial scientific publishers in the world, recently alleged in court that Sci-Hub is currently harvesting Elsevier content at a rate of thousands of papers per day. Elbakyan puts the number of papers downloaded from various publishers through Sci-Hub in the range of hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to a running total of over 19 million visitors. The efficiency of the system is really quite astounding, working far better than the comparatively primitive modes of access given to researchers at top universities, tools that universities must fork out millions of pounds for every year.
Users now don’t even have to visit the Sci-Hub website at all; instead, when faced with a journal paywall they can simply take the Sci-Hub URL and paste it into the address bar of a paywalled journal article immediately after the “.com” or “.org” part of the journal URL and before the remainder of the URL. When this happens, Sci-Hub automatically bypasses the paywall, taking the reader straight to a PDF without the user ever having to visit the Sci-Hub website itself.
“add “.sci-hub.io” after the .com in the URL of pretty much any paywalled paper to gain instant free access.” —(@Protohedgehog) February 10, 2016
If, at first pass the network fails to gain access to the paper, the system automatically tries different institutions’ credentials until it gains access. In one fell swoop, a network has been created that likely has a greater level of access to science than any individual university, or even government for that matter, anywhere in the world. Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge. This is important now more than ever in a world where even Harvard University can no longer afford to pay skyrocketing academic journal subscription fees, while Cornell axed many of its Elsevier subscriptions over a decade ago. For researchers outside the US’ and Western Europe’s richest institutions, routine piracy has long been the only way to conduct science, but increasingly the problem of unaffordable journals is coming closer to home.
This was the experience of Elbakyan herself, who studied in Kazakhstan University and just like other students in countries where journal subscriptions are unaffordable for institutions, was forced to pirate research in order to complete her studies. Elbakyan told me, “Prices are very high, and that made it impossible to obtain papers by purchasing. You need to read many papers for research, and when each paper costs about 30 dollars, that is impossible.” So how did researchers like Elbakyan ever survive before Sci-Hub? Elbakyan explains, “Before Sci-Hub, this problem was solved manually for years! For example, students would go to an online forum where other researchers communicate, and request papers there; other people would respond to the request.” This practice is widespread even today, with researchers even at rich Western institutions now routinely forced to email the authors of papers directly, asking for a copy by email, wasting the time of everyone involved and holding back the progress of research in the process.
Today many researchers use the #icanhazpdf hashtag on Twitter to ask other benevolent researchers to download paywalled papers for them, a practice Elbakyan describes as “very archaic,” pointing out that “especially in Russia, the Sci-Hub project started a new era in how research work is done. Now, the requests for information are solved by machines, not the hands of other researchers. Automation made the process of solving requests very effective. Before, hundreds of requests were solved per day; Sci-Hub turned these numbers into hundreds of thousands.”
Last year, New York District Court Judge Robert W. Sweet delivered a preliminary injunction against Sci-Hub, making the site’s former domain unavailable. The injunction came in the run-up to the forthcoming case of Elsevier vs. Sci-Hub, a case Elsevier is expected to win — due, in no small part, because no one is likely to turn up on U.S. soil to initiate a defence. Elsevier alleges “irreparable harm,” based on statutory damages of $750-$150,000 for each pirated work. Given that Sci-Hub now holds a library of over 48 million papers Elsevier’s claim runs into the billions, but can be expected to remain hypothetical both in theory and in practice.
Elsevier is the world’s largest academic publisher and by far the most controversial. Over 15,000 researchers have vowed to boycott the publisher for charging “exorbitantly high prices” and bundling expensive, unwanted journals with essential journals, a practice that allegedly is bankrupting university libraries. Elsevier also supports SOPA and PIPA, which the researchers claim threatens to restrict the free exchange of information. Elsevier is perhaps most notorious for delivering takedown notices to academics, demanding them to take their own research published with Elsevier off websites like Academia.edu.
The movement against Elsevier has only gathered speed over the course of the last year with the resignation of 31 editorial board members from the Elsevier journal Lingua, who left in protest to set up their own open-access journal, Glossa. Now the battleground has moved from the comparatively niche field of linguistics to the far larger field of cognitive sciences. Last month, a petition of over 1,500 cognitive science researchers called on the editors of the Elsevier journal Cognition to demand Elsevier offer “fair open access”. Elsevier currently charges researchers $2,150 per article if researchers wish their work published in Cognition to be accessible by the public, a sum far higher than the charges that led to the Lingua mutiny.
In her letter to Sweet, Elbakyan made a point that will likely come as a shock to many outside the academic community: Researchers and universities don’t earn a single penny from the fees charged by publishers such as Elsevier for accepting their work, while Elsevier has an annual income over a billion U.S. dollars. Elbakyan explains: “I would also like to mention that Elsevier is not a creator of these papers. All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold. But the economics of research papers is very different. Authors of these papers do not receive money. Why would they send their work to Elsevier then? They feel pressured to do this, because Elsevier is an owner of so-called “high-impact” journals. If a researcher wants to be recognized, make a career — he or she needs to have publications in such journals.”
This is the Catch-22. Why would any self-respecting researcher willingly hand over, for nothing, the copyright to their hard work to an organization that will profit from the work by making the keys prohibitively expensive to the few people who want to read it? The answer is ultimately all to do with career prospects and prestige. Researchers are rewarded in jobs and promotions for publishing in high-ranking journals such as Nature.
Ironically, it is becoming increasingly common for researchers to be unable to access even their own published work, as wealthier and wealthier universities join the ranks of those unable to pay rising subscription fees. Another tragic irony is the fact that high-impact journals can actually be less reliable than lesser-ranked journals, due to their requirements that researchers publish startling results, which can lead to a higher incidence of fraud and bad research practices. But things are changing. Researchers are increasingly fighting back against the problem of closed-access publishers and now funders of research such as the Wellcome Trust are increasingly joining the battle by instituting open access policies banning their researchers from publishing in journals with closed access.
But none of this helps researchers who need access to science right now. For her part, Elbakyan isn’t giving up the fight, in spite of the growing legal pressure, which she feels is totally unjust. When I asked what her next move would be, Elbakyan said, “I do not want Elsevier to learn about our plans,” but assured me she was not put off by the recent court order, defiantly stating “we are not going to stop our activities, and plan to expand our database.” Already, only days after the court injunction blocking Sci-Hub’s old domain, Sci-Hub was back online at a new domain accessible worldwide. Since the court judgment, the website has been upgraded from a barebones site that existed entirely in Russian to a polished English version proudly boasting a library of 48 million papers, complete with a manifesto in opposition to copyright law. The bird is out of its cage, and if Elsevier still thinks it can put it back, they may well be sorely mistaken.
graph (from Laasko and Bjork’s paper – BMC Medicine 2012, 10:124) shows papers published in three different types of online open access journals from 2000 to 2011.”
Update 02/16/16: Since last week’s deluge of traffic to Sci-Hub following this story Google have blocked Sci-Hub’s access to Google Scholar, making the search function temporarily defunct. The service otherwise works as before, users simply have to find the link to the paper they need unlocked themselves, and insert Sci-hub’s complete URL into the domain as discussed above. When I asked Alexandra about this setback she was completely unfazed, explaining “we are developing our own search engine anyway, so it doesn’t matter”. Ironically, the Google Scholar block may actually work in Sci-Hub’s favor Alexandra explains, not having to perform the complex task of managing searches, the server can now work much faster when handling the same amount of queries. Alexandra is now working on creating a “Google-like” search method, that could potentially result in “a more sophisticated” solution than Google Scholar.”
Alexandra Elbakyan letter to Judge in Elsevier case
“I am writing to clarify some details on Elsevier v. Sci-Hub: Case #15-cv-4282. I am the main operator of sci-hub.org website mentioned in the case. That is true that via sci-hub.org website anyone can download, absolutely for free, a copy of research paper published by Elsevier (Elsevier asks for 32 USD for each download). I would like to clarify the reasons behind sci-hub.org website. When I was a student in Kazakhstan university, I did not have access to any research papers. These papers I needed for my research project. Payment of 32 dollars is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them. Later I found there are lots and lots of researchers (not even students, but university researchers) just like me, especially in developing countries. They created online communities (forums) to solve this problem. I was an active participant in one of such communities in Russia. Here anyone who needs research paper, but cannot pay for it, could place a request and other members who can obtain the paper will send it for free by email. I could obtain any paper by pirating it, so I solved many requests and people always were very grateful for my help. After that, I created sci-hub.org website that simply makes this process automatic and the website immediately became popular.
Best regards, Alexandra Elbakyan, the sci-hub.erg operator”
“At the end of 2010, Aaron Swartz plugged a laptop directly into the server farm at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’d written a Python script called “Keep Grabbing That Pie” to quietly download the entire contents of the JSTOR database of academic research.”
“Aaron had complete legal access to the research he downloaded, through his university subscription. His crime, had Aaron ever made it to the dock, would essentially have been taking too many books out of the library.”
ACADEMIC OPEN ACCESS MOVEMENT
by Aaron Swartz / July 2008
“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.
“A typical “copyright transfer” agreement (pdf) prohibits them from sharing the final article in public, even on their own websites.”
There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away, but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost. That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries, but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.
“At 8 cents per page for a PACER Document, they could give away 1.8 billion pages of documents to the public and still have all the money they need to pay for their computers.”
“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights; they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: We can fight back. Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And youhave: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends. Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.
“Our very first copyright law, the Copyright Act of 1790 was subtitled, “An Act for the Encouragement of Learning.” While over the centuries, many who stood to benefit from an aggressive system of copyright control have tried to rewrite, whitewash or simply ignore this history, turning the copyright system falsely into a “property” regime, the fact is that it was always intended as a system to encourage the wider dissemination of ideas for the purpose of education and learning.”
But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy. Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.
There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture. We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies, and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that’s out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.”
Nature promotes read-only sharing by subscribers
THANK YOUR LIBRARIAN
OA Interviews: Mikhail Sergeev, Chief Strategy Officer at Russia-based CyberLeninka
Пока рак на горе не свистнет, мужик не перекрестится
Richard Poynder with Mikhail Sergeev / January 17, 2016
“While open access was not conceivable until the emergence of the Internet (and thus could be viewed as just a natural development of the network) the “OA movement” primarily grew out of a conviction that scholarly publishers have been exploiting the research community, not least by constantly increasing journal subscriptions. It was for this reason that the movement was initially driven by librarians. OA advocates reasoned that while the research community freely contributes the content in scholarly journals, and freely peer reviews that content, publishers then sell it back to research institutions at ever more extortionate prices, at levels in fact that have made it increasingly difficult for research institutions to provide faculty members with access to all the research they need to do their jobs.
What was required, it was concluded, was for subscription paywalls to be dismantled so that anyone can access all the research they need — i.e. open access. In the process, argued OA advocates, the ability of publishers to overcharge would be removed, and the cost of scholarly publishing would come down accordingly. But while the movement has persuaded many governments, funders and research institutions that open access is both inevitable and optimal, and should therefore increasingly be made compulsory, publishers have shown themselves to be extremely adept at appropriating OA for their own ends, not least by simply swapping subscription fees for article-processing charges (APCs) without realising any savings for the research community.
This is all too evident in Europe right now. In the UK, for instance, government policy is enabling legacy publishers to migrate to an open access environment with their high profits intact. Indeed, not only are costs not coming down but — as subscription publishers introduce hybrid OA options that enable them to earn both APCs and subscriptions from the same journals (i.e. to “double-dip”) — they are increasing.
Meanwhile, in The Netherlands universities are signing new-style Big Deals that combine both subscription and OA fees. While these are intended to manage the transition to OA in a cost-efficient way, publishers are clearly ensuring that they experience no loss of revenue as a result (although we cannot state that as a fact since the contracts are subject to non-disclosure clauses). More recently, the German funder Max Planck has begun a campaign intended to engineer a mass “flipping” of legacy journals to OA business models. Again, we can be confident that publishers will not co-operate with any such plan unless they are able to retain their current profit levels. It is no surprise, therefore, that many OA advocates have become concerned that the OA project has gone awry.
“The problem, however, is that the paper was actually published by competing publisher Wiley under an open access Creative Commons license (and is available free of charge on its website). The key author on the paper, Didier Raolt told Mounce that he had no idea why Elsevier was selling his paper, and that he had not given permission.”
As the implications of this have sunk in there has been growing interest in alternative publishing models, particularly ones that hold out the promise of disintermediating legacy publishers. So, for instance, we are seeing the creation of “overlay journals”, and other new publishing initiatives in which the whole process is managed and controlled by the research community itself. Examples of the latter include the use of institutional repositories as publishing platforms, and the founding of new OA university presses like Collabra and Lever Press.
Others have cast their eyes to the Global South (where the affordability problem is both more longstanding and far more acute) for possible alternative models. In doing so, they frequently point to Latin American initiatives like SciELO and Redalyc. (See, for instance, here, here, and here). Both these services started out as regional bibliographic databases, but over time have added more and more freely-available full-text journal content. Today SciELO hosts 573,525 research articles from 1,249 journals. Redalyc has more than 425,000 full-text articles from over 1,000 journals.
But does Western Europe need to look as far afield as Latin America for this kind of model? The Moscow-based CyberLeninka, for instance, reports that it currently hosts 940,000 papers from 990 journals, all of which are open access, and approximately 70% of which are available under a CC BY licence. Moreover, it has amassed this content in just three years. Significantly, it has achieved this without the support of either the Russian government, or any private venture capital, as CyberLeninka’s Chief Strategy Officer Mikhail Sergeev explains in the Q&A below. The service was created, and is maintained, by five people working from home. Their goal: to create a prototype for a Russian open science infrastructure.
What struck me in speaking to Sergeev is that many of the problems the Russian research community faces today are strikingly similar to those facing the research community everywhere, if somewhat more extreme in both scope and effect. So could CyberLeninka be developing solutions that the West could learn from? On one hand it would seem not, since CyberLeninka does not currently have a business model, and so no income. It is also not entirely clear to me how the 990 journals it hosts fund and manage themselves. One would also want to know more about the quality and topicality of the 940,000 papers on the service. What is clear is that the most prestigious Russian journals are not freely available today. We in the West can certainly identify with that problem.
On the other hand, to focus on business models alone is perhaps to miss the point. Surely the Russian government should be funding CyberLeninka, and surely it should be seeking to get the prestigious journals published by the Russian Academy of Sciences on CyberLeninka too? Admittedly the latter could present challenges as the journals were in, effect, (and mistakenly) “privatised” in the 1990s. But that does not mean it should not happen. The point to bear in mind is that the OA strategies currently being pursued in the West appear to be no more sustainable than the subscription system. Better solutions are therefore needed, and so the more experimentation the better.
And remember, CyberLeninka says it has achieved what it has achieved with no source of revenue. Moreover, in the process of loading journals on its system it is making them OA — without the costs normally associated with journal “flipping”. That should focus minds on the cost of scholarly publishing. In the meantime, of course, CyberLeninka continues to face a serious financial challenge. If it is to prosper, and to embark on the many new initiatives it has set its sights on — including developing overlay journals and offering other repository-based publishing services — some source of funding will be essential.”
“If you wish to read the interview with Mikhail Sergeev, please click on the link below. I am publishing the interview under a Creative Commons licence, so you are free to copy and distribute it as you wish, so long as you credit me as the author, do not alter or transform the text, and do not use it for any commercial purpose.
To read the interview (as a PDF file) click HERE.”
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