A researcher in Russia has made more than 48 million journal articles - almost every single peer-reviewed paper every published - freely available online. And she's now refusing to shut the site down, despite a court injunction and a lawsuit from Elsevier, one of the world's biggest publishers.
For those of you who aren't already using it, the site in question is Sci-Hub, and it's sort of like a Pirate Bay of the science world. It was established in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who was frustrated that she couldn't afford to access the articles needed for her research, and it's since gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of papers being downloaded daily. But at the end of last year, the site was ordered to be taken down by a New York district court - a ruling that Elbakyan has decided to fight, triggering a debate over who really owns science.
"Payment of $32 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," Elbakyan told Torrent Freak last year. "Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal."
If it sounds like a modern day Robin Hood struggle, that's because it kinda is. But in this story, it's not just the poor who don't have access to scientific papers - journal subscriptions have become so expensive that leading universities such as Harvard and Cornell have admitted they can no longer afford them. Researchers have also taken a stand - with 15,000 scientists vowing to boycott publisher Elsevier in part for its excessive paywall fees.
Don't get us wrong, journal publishers have also done a whole lot of good - they've encouraged better research thanks to peer review, and before the Internet, they were crucial to the dissemination of knowledge.
But in recent years, more and more people are beginning to question whether they're still helping the progress of science. In fact, in some cases, the 'publish or perish' mentality is creating more problems than solutions, with a growing number of predatory publishers now charging researchers to have their work published - often without any proper peer review process or even editing.
"They feel pressured to do this," Elbakyan wrote in an open letter to the New York judge last year. "If a researcher wants to be recognised, make a career - he or she needs to have publications in such journals."
That's where Sci-Hub comes into the picture. The site works in two stages. First of all when you search for a paper, Sci-Hub tries to immediately download it from fellow pirate database LibGen. If that doesn't work, Sci-Hub is able to bypass journal paywalls thanks to a range of access keys that have been donated by anonymous academics (thank you, science spies).
This means that Sci-Hub can instantly access any paper published by the big guys, including JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier, and deliver it to you for free within seconds. The site then automatically sends a copy of that paper to LibGen, to help share the love.
It's an ingenious system, as Simon Oxenham explains for Big Think:
"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."
That's all well and good for us users, but understandably, the big publishers are pissed off. Last year, a New York court delivered an injunction against Sci-Hub, making its domain unavailable (something Elbakyan dodged by switching to a new location), and the site is also being sued by Elsevier for "irreparable harm" - a case that experts are predicting will win Elsevier around $750 to $150,000 for each pirated article. Even at the lowest estimations, that would quickly add up to millions in damages.
But Elbakyan is not only standing her ground, she's come out swinging, claiming that it's Elsevier that have the illegal business model.
"I think Elsevier’s business model is itself illegal," she told Torrent Freak, referring to article 27 of the UN Declaration of Human Rights, which states that "everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits".
She also explains that the academic publishing situation is different to the music or film industry, where pirating is ripping off creators. "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," she said.
Elbakyan hopes that the lawsuit will set a precedent, and make it very clear to the scientific world either way who owns their ideas.
"If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge," she said. "We have to win over Elsevier and other publishers and show that what these commercial companies are doing is fundamentally wrong."
To be fair, Elbakyan is somewhat protected by the fact that she's in Russia and doesn't have any US assets, so even if Elsevier wins their lawsuit, it's going to be pretty hard for them to get the money.
Still, it's a bold move, and we're pretty interested to see how this fight turns out - because if there's one thing the world needs more of, it's scientific knowledge. In the meantime, Sci-Hub is still up and accessible for anyone who wants to use it, and Elbakyan has no plans to change that anytime soon.