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Source: The Atlantic - theatln.tc/1o0WlTh

By: Kaveh Waddell 

The Research Pirates of the Dark Web

After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.

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 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 #icanhazpdfon 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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Comment by Dawn X Henderson on February 17, 2016 at 9:46am

I believe we have to be mindful of how knowledge dissemination is connected to channels of power and resources. If many of us aim to disseminate our work to others outside of academia and universities then we should challenge how laymen folk access our knowledge. I agree many publishing companies charge universities and, to some extent, faculty to access research. However, going after publishing companies and overpricing is just the tip of the iceberg there is a hierarchical structure that exist in journals that translates into rigor and legitimacy within academia--this is larger system we have to change. Also, we have to change our ideas around knowledge and who should be able to access it or who should not. The internet fosters a system where individuals can constantly create alternative pathways to get information and knowledge--which may at one time been accessible to those who had access to grand libraries and extensive collections of material. 

Comment by Dr Sudeb Mandal on February 17, 2016 at 5:08am

I agree that academic research should be free to gain better the financial, institutional, and societal costs. We get little return from the current trends of higher education in the society. We must use the resources of the knowledge, talents, skills, abilities, experience, intelligence, training, judgment, and wisdom possessed individually and collectively by individuals in a population. These resources are the total capacity of the people that represents a form of wealth which can be directed to accomplish the universal goals.

Comment by Atanas G. Atanasov on February 17, 2016 at 2:03am

Research open access is the way to go – one way or another… Our local Science Fund here in Austria (FWF) addressed this issue by making open access publishing obligatory – every researcher who receives FWF grant is now obliged to publish open access. This perfectly makes sense since as already mentioned here research is largely financed by taxpayers – and open access is the approach to maximally benefit the society which was paying for conducting the research.

Comment by Wadan Narsey on February 17, 2016 at 1:56am

Another possibility, which would in essence be the principle followed by patent laws, is to have a small charge only for a year after publication (which rewards the authors and publishers), and thereafter make access completely free.  This would also be a recognition that all knowledge is essentially "social knowledge", with each individual's work predicated on the knowledge produced by others.  Imagine how poor today's world would be if Einstein's work could only be accessed by those who could afford to pay a fee, however small.

Comment by Wadan Narsey on February 17, 2016 at 1:44am

Alexandra Elbakyan has to be recognized internationally as one of our contemporary warriors for freedom of dissemination of knowledge.

But we also need to recognize that publishers, as well as authors provide an important service to researchers and end-users. One issue that academics need to address is the fair price that ought to be charged, that gives the authors and publishers some reasonable return for their intellectual labor, and the publishers for the service they also provide. Unlike service providers in national jurisdiction, the publishers are not subject to control by Commerce Commission or Fair Trading Regulators.  A low price charged would of course widen the usage of that knowledge and a zero price charged (given that the marginal cost of disseminating an already uploaded paper is pretty negligible) would be economically desirable, but not reward either the authors or the publisher. There seems to be room for international action, such as boycotts by academics of exploitative publishers, but to make it effective, academics would need an alternative platform that enables them to disseminate their knowledge, while gaining some benefits. One possible way would be to establish small membership fees for the top journals (which would give them a guaranteed annual income), which would pool their uploaded material, and make them available to all members. Students of course, would be given discounted fees. The academic community would then need to establish the benefits for authors? Numbers of hits or downloads?

Professor Wadan Narsey

Comment by Ian C. Colquhoun on February 16, 2016 at 11:20pm

I think the academic community is taking on this issue on multiple fronts. Many universities (including the one at which I work) encourage their faculty members to place any of their publications in electronic repository at their home institution -- those publications are openly available to the public (all one would have to do is a Google search regarding the author, the title of a particular paper, or key words related to a particular paper). In addition, there are now multiple websites, such as Academia.edu, or ResearchGate, or even LinkedIn, where the authors can post copies of their publications (and those posts will also show up on Google searches).  The information is out there (much of it anyway!).

Comment by Bob Burke on February 16, 2016 at 5:01pm

I agree with John and I would take it a step further - do we want people to read our research or not?  Why shouldn't research be university-funded and free at source?  I think we should fight to keep education free of the ravages of Freemarket Fundamentalism.

Comment by John Xavier Voker on February 16, 2016 at 3:54pm

Tracking down a needed paper to support current research is very frustrating when one wanders outside of the subscription services of one's current university.  Yes, there is interlibrary loan but that takes time and can stall the momentum of a research project while waiting for the desired paper.  I can't imagine doing research effectively and not being part of a university with decent subscriptions.  I do believe that information wants to be free, especially when most articles written at universities have been paid for, at least in part, by the taxpayers.

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