A scientific research depository intended to provide open access to scientific data has had its domains blocked in Russia, after a Russian court declared that the website violates publisher copyrights. It’s the latest salvo in a global war on efforts to bring valuable scientific data out from behind paywalls and into the light of day to better benefit the public at large.
Created back in 2011, Sci-Hub is largely the brain child of one woman: scientific researcher and hacker Alexandra Elbakyan. Occasionally dubbed “the Pirate Bay of science,” Elbakyan’s research repository is her solution to the rampant paywalls and copyright restrictions that keep valuable research out of the public domain.
Operating as a sort of web scraper, Sci-Hub is effectively a script that downloads HTML and PDF pages from the Web—including data hidden by paywalls. Providing access to more than 48 million scholarly research articles obviously hasn’t pleased traditional publishers, who profit from keeping such tight access restrictions intact.
In 2015, Dutch publishing company Elsevier filed a lawsuit in the United States against Elbakyan for “unlawfully accessing and distributing copyrighted papers,” resulting in a $15 million injunction. Publishers have seen similar legal successes in Germany and Sweden, where one Swedish ISP blocked Elsevier’s website in protest after courts ordered it to censor 20 domains associated with Sci-Hub.
Publishers have also seen some success with similar efforts in Russia, where Russian courts recently sided with UK academic publisher Springer Nature Limited, after the publisher claimed Sci-Hub’s sharing of three works focused on heart and brain health infringed its copyrights. As a result, Russian regulator Roskomnadzor demanded that Russian ISPs block user access to numerous Sci-Hub and Library Genesis domains. Users, however, can often find technical workarounds to continue accessing the banned materials, copyright experts note. “Sci-Hub has shown time and again that it's better at cat-and-mouse than the giant science publishing monopolies it undermines,” activist and author Cory Doctorow said in an email exchange with Motherboard.
“That said, unless your science is public, it's not science, it's just alchemy,” Doctorow added. “With the major science funders around the world declaring war on the likes of Springer, it's bizarre that they're focused on Sci-Hub, rather than addressing the fact that the entire world of science practitioners and funders thinks that they're useless and greedy parasites.”
While Elbakyan says she can erect alternative domain workarounds (until the courts target those as well), those too will likely be targeted by publishers and the courts.
“The spare domain sci-hub.se works but for how long, I can not guarantee. Therefore, to access Sci-Hub, use tools to circumvent Internet censorship – which you can search for in Google or by using the bot in Telegram: @scihubot,” Elbakyan said on social networks VK and Telegram, the latter of which has also been a target of Russian government filtering efforts.
Elbakyan has long argued online that she’s simply offering researchers and the public a more efficient shortcut to what researchers do all the time; namely, trying to find works via Google Scholar—or contacting an author hoping to get access to paywalled research.
“The system has to be changed so that websites like Sci-Hub can work without running into problems. Sci-Hub is a goal, changing the system is one of the methods to achieve it,” Elbakyan wrote in a blog post last year.
The problem for publishers and their courtroom attacks on Sci-Hub is that they only draw additional attention to the need for open access to this data (aka the Streisand Effect). As a result, several prominent European research councils recently announced a open access publishing effort intended to more seriously address the problem at hand.