Cognition, Communism, and Theft
A conversation with Sci-Hub’s founder Alexandra Elbakyan
When the shadow library Sci-hub was founded in 2011, it was meant to remove “barriers in the way of science”, in response to the high cost of research papers behind paywalls. Since then, its founder Kazakhstani programmer Alexandra Elbakyan often became a target of lawsuits for copyright infringement. The platform currently hosts more than 85 million scientific papers. This conversation previously appeared in a shorter version on Netzpolitik.org.
Hoçâ Cové-Mbede: Multiple profiles depict you with specific associations and comparisons with other projects or personas historically and culturally related with online piracy in the USA—from Piratebay, Megaupload and Napster to Wikileaks, Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning. What are your thoughts on how the media covers Sci-Hub? I’m thinking in particular of an article in Nature from 2016 and a profile published in The Verge in 2018, both of which get cited regularly in relation to Sci-Hub.
Alexandra Elbakyan: In my opinion, Sci-Hub’s media coverage was very little, unfair and biased. I would even say that discussion of Sci-Hub was censored in the media. Sci-Hub is a real revolution in science comparable to CRISPR but the media prefer to keep silent about it.
Sci-Hub started in 2011 and from the very beginning was recognized as a revolutionary Open Science project and gained huge popularity among researchers. But only in 2016 did articles about Sci-Hub in the media start to appear. That censorship is perhaps the result of the general perception of Sci-Hub as a Russian project opposed to the US.
I would say that the discussion of Sci-Hub in the journal Nature is very small compared to its real impact. In particular, Nature published very detailed descriptions of such open science projects as Unpaywall with pictures. The Unpaywall project is tiny compared to Sci-Hub, but Nature published only very short pieces about Sci-Hub, without pictures. So some readers of Nature journal who do not know much about the topic will have the wrong impression that Unpaywall is much bigger than Sci-Hub, because Nature has described it in detail while discussion of Sci-Hub was little. But in reality, the opposite is true: Unpaywall is tiny compared to Sci-Hub. If Nature was unbiased to Sci-Hub it would have put Sci-Hub on its cover picture in 2016.
You’re correct that even those articles about Sci-Hub that appeared in the media are focused not on the project itself but on comparisons, trying to belittle Sci-Hub and present it as secondary, while in reality it is revolutionary and unique. In the Verge article, journalists have presented a skewed picture of my conflict with the Russian science fund “Dynasty”, supporting Dynasty. They did not even bother to ask me about the information they collect so I could comment on it!
Wrong information appears not just in the media, but in more reputable sources also, for example, books, such as “Shadow Libraries” published by MIT and in dissertations. I read some of them and there were serious mistakes in my biography and the description of how Sci-Hub works. Again, authors of these works did not even bother contacting me.
However in Russian media the current state of affairs is much worse. An extremely unfair picture of me is being promoted; good facts about Sci-Hub are not published. I am being presented as a person who blocked access to academic literature while the reality is opposite. I opened access and not blocked it. Also, usually journalists attach to their articles the most horrendous photo of me they can find, instead of asking me to send them a good photo. I guess that some of the bad media publications about me and Sci-Hub could be directly paid by Elsevier.
There’s a current pattern of legal tactics that label common words or compounds employed in open knowledge activities as criminal-by-association in regards to free access and text-private-property. Why do you think these legal tactics under the argument of capitalist loss have been used to try to slow down sharing networks and archival repositories?
There is a huge industry around science publishing and copyright law in general, and they have enough money and power to support the status quo.
Do you think the measures against you, like the legal prosecution directed by Elsevier to cease Sci-Hub in 2015, are similar to Middle Age’s curses intended to protect against the theft of books?
Alexandra Elbakyan: In the Middle Ages books were copied by hand and it was a very tedious task and books were precious. So to protect books from stealing, a popular method was to insert a curse in the beginning or the end of the book, so that somebody who would steal that book will be cursed and go to Hell or get an illness or something else very bad will happen to them. Because Elsevier and other publishers also insist that their books and articles are being stolen by such websites as Sci-Hub and Library Genesis, I thought that is quite funny if they would also try using curses to protect their articles and books. Perhaps that will be a better method than suing us for copyright?
It is fascinating how the tense relationship between the USA and Russia during the Cold War plays an important precedent in the public eye to generate plots and theories about the origins and intentions of Sci-Hub on copyrighted territories, even though you repeatedly insisted that Sci-Hub is a project you started in 2011. These theories suggest a plethoric range of possibilities, from a fully state funded project by Russian Intelligence, to an ongoing investigation directed by the US Justice Department that targets Sci-Hub as an undercover espionage-project. What is your response to these accusations and what is behind the constant emergence of conspiracy plots toward Sci-Hub?
Alexandra Elbakyan: First of all, these suspicions are understandable: Sci-Hub is an openly communistic project, coming from the former USSR or Russia, with a picture of Lenin pinned on its twitter page. I studied information security at the university, supported Putin politics and Sci-Hub uses supposedly hacked credentials to log in into university systems. All these facts taken together create a classical picture of some Russian intelligence. Also US authorities could suspect that Sci-Hub is an attempt to influence US researchers by the Russian government.
And the second reason for conspiracies is that Sci-Hub is a very cool and advanced project. So many people think: how could an Armenian woman coming from Kazakhstan create this herself? There should be a team of developers behind her face and so on. We still have a lot of prejudices against women, especially young—still many people think that women cannot code or do some serious work in IT—prejudices against race and countries. Just think of the Borat movie about Kazakhstan! After watching this movie, who can believe that something great such as Sci-Hub—and many people consider it great—can come from Kazakhstan? And so on. The funniest thing here is perhaps that because of all that, who will consider me for any great job at all? Hence all I can work on is a project that is illegal in all countries. But even then that work will not be considered mine. It is necessary to note that these prejudices were much stronger a few years ago, when Sci-Hub started, now they are becoming weaker.
In 2016 Marcia Mcnutt (former president of the National Academy of Sciences) wrote a column for Science Magazine titled My love-hate of Sci-Hub in which she argues that downloading papers from Sci-Hub could create collateral damage for authors, publishing houses, universities, fellowships, science education, among other areas. The love-hate scenario Mcnutt paints is nonetheless confusing for the debate she wants to open about corporate knowledge inside institutions, since the whole text leaves serious cracks in her depiction of the publishing system’s function. Accidentally in the same text, she evidences a chain of normalized exploitation towards researchers in her community—by not rewarding them. To use her own words “Journals have real costs, even though they don’t pay authors or reviewers, as they help ensure accuracy, consistency, and clarity in scientific communication.” If access means power and power is fueled by elevated amounts of money, what are the standards of politically correct access to information aiming for, if not capital accumulation?
Of course Sci-Hub creates damage: damage to the status quo, because old ways of doing things die and a new reality is born—what is perceived as damage to old ways is just transformation and change.
In her article Marcia McNutt says: “Authors do not benefit from download statistics, for example, which are increasingly being used to assess the impact of their work.” That does not seem to be a strong objection to me. After all, the real impact is when some work is cited, not just downloaded? I download many papers for later reading, for example. You can download and read some paper because it has a catchy title, but it will turn out to be useless for your work.
Sci-Hub collects download statistics, although they are not public, but all download statistics have been recorded since 2011 and I have a plan to add the number of views each paper has in the future. So Sci-Hub can be updated to provide such information.
The article goes on… “Libraries cannot properly track usage for the journals they provide and could wind up discontinuing titles that are useful to their institution. As institutions cancel subscriptions, the ability of non-profit scientific societies to provide journals and support their research communities is diminished.” In my opinion, it is very good when institutions cancel subscriptions, because we need to get rid of that outdated subscription model that operates by blocking access to knowledge for everyone who has not paid for a subscription. I don’t see it as damage but as a good thing.
The argument continues that journals have real costs. My response is that the prices currently charged for subscriptions are not used to cover the costs but simply to increase the profits. An example to illustrate this is that papers published in the 2010s and earlier are paywalled. Why? There is no reason—these papers have been published more than 10 years ago. Haven’t the costs of publishing them been covered already? They could be free, but they are being kept with closed access only to extract more profits.
Sci-Hub’s borderless pirate distribution is generating not only scientific capital but also cultural capital, in an availability of knowledge never experienced before. Language barriers aside, the capacities for scientific development in countries with research shortages may have significant growth in the next ten years thanks to Theft Trade Communication.
In a presentation you made this year about the mythology of science titled The Open Science Idea you made an unexpected statement: modern science grew out of theft. What is the nexus between cognition, communism, and theft inside your studies about the cultural history of science?
Since about 2010 I have had astrology as a hobby (yes, I know that is considered to be pseudoscience) and in modern astrology, there is planet Mercury that is responsible for all communication and information flow. That is because Mercury is an ancient god of language and speech, trade, travel, and theft. I thought that corresponds very well with Sci-Hub’s mission 😀 and the common idea behind all these different activities is the idea of communication. We can find similar gods in other cultures and they are also gods of knowledge, and the god Mercury later developed as god of alchemy, astrology or the earliest forms of science. What we can see here is that science from its inception was connected to communication or to the idea of making something common. Hence private ownership of science by corporations is contradictory to science itself.
Is also worth noticing the high contrast amid the graphic assertions from Elsevier and Sci-Hub and what each one represents and stands for in regard to power and information. I’ve always wondered about Sci-Hub’s logo genesis, because in this case the graphisms go beyond the symbolic.
Alexandra Elbakyan: The history of Sci-Hub logo is less intriguing than it appears to be. When Sci-Hub started in 2011, its first logo was a simple Soviet hammer and sickle, and when the mouse pointer hovered upon it, a text showed up stating: “Communism is … common ownership of the means of production with free access to articles of consumption.”
I took this communism definition from a Wikipedia page and it fitted Sci-Hub very neatly. I was lucky because that definition of communism in Wikipedia was only in 2011—if you check earlier versions of Wiki articles about communism or later versions, they do not contain anything about “free access to articles.”
In 2014 I created a group in a social network to bring together Sci-Hub users (vk.com/sci_hub). First I used the Mendeleev table as a logo, after that it was an alchemical serpent. Later I decided to look up some pictures in Google with a key and books to use as a group logo, and found Raven sitting on books, holding a key. I loved that picture and immediately put it up as a logo on Sci-Hub’s social network group. Later in 2015, I decided to re-design Sci-Hub website and create a more current design, and used the group raven logo as a website logo.
Now that you discovered attractive routes to study information patterns and similarities through history, What do you think about the future of file-sharing consumption under severe .net regulations?
It is quite hard to predict the future, but I hope everything will be OK with Sci-Hub and it will have millions of daily visitors, not just half a million, and be recognized as a legal project.
We are in the middle of important changes at institutional, corporate and cultural levels in the context of Open Science and information access. In June of 2020 MIT ended negotiations with Elsevier for a new contract, and recently the University of California also renewed negotiations launching open access resolutions with the company. At the same time, many universities are inaugurating new protocols and initiatives to ensure wide and free access for academic resources. Do you consider the recent measures taken by academic organizations to be enough to abolish the paywall-economy?
As we can see paywalls are still there, and Sci-Hub is getting a lot of traffic. It could help if all—or most—science organizations stopped support of the paywall system, not just MIT and the University of California.
In May 2020 you were nominated for the John Maddox Prize by Fergus Kane after almost ten years of navigating heavily corporate waters. One curious detail about the award is that it has support from the international scientific journal Nature, Nature’s news team covered Sci-Hub’s legal battle in New York courts unfavorably. What is your approach to this nomination and how significant could it be for Sci-Hub’s potential?
I have seen many times in social networks how people say that I should get a Nobel Prize for Sci-Hub! So I expect a Nobel Prize, not just John Maddox, but of course the prize condition of Sci-Hub is just as unfair as its media condition. Sci-Hub has existed for 9 years so far, praised—and sometimes worshipped—by researchers all around the world: many people say that without Sci-Hub they would barely be able to do science, the project is extremely popular and considered to be revolutionary and… in the nine years of its existence it never got a single prize! That John Maddox nomination is a small step towards justice.
Can you elaborate the statement you made about Elon Musk’s Neuralink similarities with your Global Brain project developed back in 2010?
I’ve written a lot about neural chips in my blog and participated in conferences on that topic. Now Elon Musk is working on exactly the same things I wanted to work on and talked about 10 years ago. But there is not as much work as there is publicity: nothing is done yet, but everyone all over the world knows about that Neuralink—so when you talk about brain chips or brain-machine interfaces, people will immediately think that you’re somehow copy-cating Elon Musk, right? In fact, that topic of brain chips is quite old, attempts to develop and discuss something similar were made back in 2003 and earlier, it all started way before Elon Musk, but the advertisement works in such a way that most people think that is Elon Musk’s Neuralink.
A similar thing happened with Aaron Swartz. His name became so strongly associated with that “free science papers” topic that when people finally learned about Sci-Hub it was perceived as nothing but a shadow copy of Aaron Swartz work, while in reality Sci-Hub started and became popular before Aaron Swartz’s case.
Sci-Hub was a unique and extremely revolutionary project, but it became perceived as a shadow copycat just because it was given publicity only after the name of another person has been associated with the idea of freeing science by stealing research papers. In the beginning, it really felt as if Sci-Hub was working hard to free itself from that “copycat“ image. And I wonder whether something similar is being done with Neuralink. Elon Musk is very unappreciative of communism, as we can see from his twitter. So, I wonder if Sci-Hub was somehow the reason behind Elon Musk’s Neuralink.
What is your opinion about Elsevier’s Scholarly Networks Security Initiative (SNSI) founded together with other large publishers that proposes an analysis engine with biometric data and conspicuous usage patterns spyware, to prevent “cyber-attacks targeting institutions” and even hosting a presentation titled “The threat presented by Sci-Hub and other state-sponsored or individual bad actors”?
Actually I don’t know much about that surveillance scandal, I myself learned from Twitter about their plans, some people posted a link to that Times Higher Education article, I wanted to read it but it was not available in full—I had to register in their website. I did that, read the article and then re-posted it in Sci-Hub’s twitter. A well-known Open Access advocate Björn Brembs, who was mentioned in that article, has more on this topic in his twitter. I do not know him, but he often shares opinions in support of Sci-Hub.
You mentioned before that since 2010 you study astrology/modern astrology as a hobby. I would like to ask you to do a prediction about Sci-Hub (or Elsevier).
Ha! You’re the first journalist to ask such questions. Most questions are just duplicates: they ask how Sci-Hub works, why the science must be open, and what I’m going to do next. I cannot give a prediction for Elsevier, because for astrology, you need to know precisely, in minutes, time and place of birth—or, for websites and companies, time and place where they launched first. I can do it for Sci-Hub only. I actually looked into the Sci-Hub natal chart only in September 2017, when my friend’s ex-boyfriend, interested in astrology, contacted me and asked about Sci-Hub.
Sci-Hub has Mars in Cancer in its 10th house. What does that mean? 10th house (out of 12) is the middle of heavens. Mars is a god of war and god of heroes, so perhaps that’s why Sci-Hub is fighting the system. Usually Mars in Cancer is considered to be bad for Mars, because, as I read in one astrology source, Mars is a planet of energy, and inside Cancer that energy is hitting the shell and gets blocked, so the person’s energy is blocked, until sometimes that shell explodes. I thought that is a good metaphor of what Sci-Hub does: that is the service to breaking walls or shells where Science is currently incarcerated. On the other side, that is destiny: Sci-Hub gets blocked everywhere. You can also make a rough prediction, that since Mars is in Cancer, Mars is in a weak position, that usually signifies losers, or people who prefer to sit at home with their mother (Cancer is home/mother sign) than go fighting, because they think that will be smarter. Partially, that description fits Sci-Hub: so far it lost in all courts, because it was never participating—and that is a actually a smart thing to do, because fighting against such a huge corporation as Elsevier, with current law on their side, would obviously make no sense. But in astrology, as well as human life, is more complicated than just win or lose.
To compare, I have Mars in first degree. Aries (the strongest position that Aries can be) in 3rd house. The 3rd house in the human horoscope represents communication, studying and information—people often say that I’m too aggressive when communicating. Another feature I noticed in Sci-Hub’s horoscope is Neptune in the 6th house. That house represents work (not career) and Neptune is the planet of confusion (Neptune in astrology is opposed to Mercury, planet of rational knowledge). I noticed that no matter how much I explain how Sci-Hub works, still after several years people are very confused about it.
There is the 12th house in the human horoscope that represents death and life outcomes, Sci-Hub has the Sun and Venus here, they both bring luck and good fortune. So I hope the outcome of Sci-Hub will be better!
In September of 2020 the http://sci-hub.tw domain was blocked under a Website Infringement Complaints lawsuit by Elsevier using legal representation from Beijing. Can you explain the reasons behind this worldwide block and the suspicious follow-up appearance of fake look-alike Sci-Hub domains?
I have doubts about the real reason for the Elsevier lawsuit. Why? Well, I bought the .tw domain a few years ago from one Russian Internet company and since then, sci-hub.tw was never blocked, while other domains (Sci-Hub had a lot of them) did not live long, a couple of months or so. But the .tw domain was miraculously resilient to this. I was thinking, perhaps Chinese government (back then I did not know about the conflict between mainland China and Taiwan) was silently supporting Sci-Hub because of communist ideas?… What prevented Elsevier from seizing the .tw domain, just like they did with all other domains? (Another resilient domain is .se but Pirate Party in Sweden is backing it up).
When sci-hub.tw suddenly got blocked in September, I contacted that Russian company asking them what happened, because I had no letters from the domain registrar in my mailbox that are usually sent before the domain gets blocked. They took a long pause and then responded that they had asked the company where the .tw domain was registered, but they were silent and did not reply. I asked whether I can ask them myself, and they gave me an email. I sent a letter on 29 September, but then already I felt something was not clear here. The company responded the next day, very shortly, ‘we have sent you the document, please check, thanks’ I asked whether they could send me the document again because I received nothing! After 10 days, they finally responded with a document, explaining that there was a lawsuit filed by Elsevier (I posted that on Sci-Hub Twitter).
Then it popped up. sci-hub.tw was a very popular domain, it popped up first in Google search results, 45% of Sci-Hub users were coming from Google and other search engines (now percentage of search traffic is only 22%) but after it got blocked, it disappeared and instead, some suspicious ‘Sci-Hub’ websites started to appear first in Google (I also posted about that on Twitter)
By suspicious ‘Sci-Hub’ websites I mean scihub.wikicn.top, sci-hub.tf, sci-hub.ren, sci-hub.shop, and sci-hub.scihubtw.tw. These websites are actually the same, and they worked as a proxy to Sci-Hub, so they receive request from the users, redirect it to real Sci-Hub website (using some non-blocked Sci-Hub address) and give user the response, hiding/masking the address of real Sci-Hub. Actually, such websites can, in theory, have good goals, just to unblock Sci-Hub in those places where access to real Sci-Hub is blocked, for example, scihub.unblockit.top or scihub.unblockit.lat work the same way – but we can easily see these as generic services to unblock various blocked websites.
In the case of the websites mentioned above, the first time I encountered this was when one of the Sci-Hub domains was blocked in Russia. In such cases I usually add a new Sci-Hub domain for Russian users to work. After .se was blocked in Russia back in 2019, I quickly added sci-hub.st (if I remember correctly) as a replacement but then I noticed, that surprisingly, instead of this new domain published by me, people promoted some ‘sci-hub.ltd’ website. I opened it and it worked as a proxy, and I really did not like that, also because .ltd domain means ‘limited’ and Sci-Hub should not be limited. I found their IP address and configured Sci-Hub, so that when Sci-Hub is accessed though sci-hub.ltd proxy, it shows the REAL Sci-Hub addresses that people can use instead.
After I did that, the sci-hub.ltd author contacted me, and instead of providing some good reason for his .ltd website, such as “we want to provide access to Sci-Hub where real addresses are blocked” mumbled something about promoting Sci-Hub through this domain!
Then coronavirus happened and I forgot about this, but this September it all resurfaced as a replacement for the .tw website worldwide. These websites are adding advertisements while real Sci-Hub has no advertisements. They use suspicious domains such as ‘shop’ or ‘tf’ which reads as ‘thief’. Just like previously, I replaced their content with real Sci-Hub addresses (.st .se and .do) and they were aggressively fighting it! They tried using multiple proxies to hide their IP, they were desperately replacing and removing real Sci-Hub addresses from my message, they changed my email (!) on my About page (sci-hub.do/alexandra) to some another email registered at 163.com, and later they removed link to my page completely. If they had good intentions, just to unblock Sci-Hub, they could SIMPLY provide real Sci-Hub addresses in the left menu, with an explanation that they are only a proxy to help people when Sci-Hub is inaccessible by real addresses. They did nothing, instead they started to redirect to some Sci-Hub database mirror instead, and for new articles they put a completely fake “proxy search” page, while in fact it does not search anything, is just an imitation of the real Sci-Hub.
I really suspect that these websites are kind of man-in-the-middle attack from publishers (or somebody else!), who are providing fake Sci-Hub websites instead of the real one, to manipulate or control Sci-Hub’s image. But they could not do this with the.tw domain live, they needed to block it in order to replace Sci-Hub with their fake Sci-Hub they can control. This happened soon after I posted “About me” information on Sci-Hub for everyone to read. See? Somebody might want to prevent such information from being posted, so they need a controlled Sci-Hub, so there will be no “About me” or “about Sci-Hub” pages that can provide true facts about Sci-Hub. Media is controlled, but I could post my story on Sci-Hub, and everyone respects Sci-Hub… they want to block this opportunity. Additionally, simple advertisements already create a negative impression of Sci-Hub as some shady website, while real Sci-Hub does not rely on advertisements.
Co-edited by Serafin Dinges.