[WSF-Discuss] Liberating the information commons: Alexandra Elbakyan's challenge to academic publishing

Brian K. Murphy brian at radicalroad.com
Mon Apr 11 07:54:23 CDT 2016

*Sci-Hub vs. the Scarcity-Mongers*

by JACOB SILVERMAN   April 01, 2016 /| The Baffler/

In his /Guerilla Open Access Manifesto,/ information activist *Aaron 
Swartz *urged everyone to do their civic duty and take up piracy. “The 
world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage . . . is increasingly 
being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations,” he 
wrote. “We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our 
copies and share them with the world.” When Swartz committed suicide in 
2013, he was facing federal charges related to downloading 4.8 million 
articles from JSTOR, an academic database.

The Leibniz to Swartz’s Newton might be *Alexandra Elbakyan,* the 
Kazakhstani researcher behind rogue website /*Sci-Hub*/, an online 
repository of more than 47 million scientific papers. Sci-Hub now hosts 
practically the whole corpus of peer-reviewed scientific research—and it 
allows the public to download this research for free. Founded in 2011, 
the site has dodged snags and shut-downs—it was temporarily blacklisted 
by Google Scholar earlier this year, and one of its domains was blocked 
by a court injunction in October—but it remains alive under other names 
and on the dark web, which could be better called the noncommercial web.

With little fanfare until recently, Elbakyan has created one of the 
web’s great free archives, joining Project Gutenberg, the Internet 
Archive, UbuWeb, and sadly, not many others. If her methods seem daring, 
it’s worth asking why. It could be that the tepid digital messianism of 
today’s surveillance capitalists has permanently routed the utopian 
enthusiasm of the web’s early years. Or it could be that the information 
economy can still be beat at its own game: superabundance.

Scarcity was supposed to be one of the casualties of the revolutionary 
shift from physical media to digital. When I download Atlas Shrugged: 
Who Is John Galt? to show to my Objectivist film club, I’m merely 
grabbing a copy of the file—the original still exists on the server, its 
quality unaffected. Distribution costs approach zero, “owning” gives way 
to “sharing,” and barriers to access fall away. You can see why so many 
biz-bibles and breathless magazine covers of the early Internet age 
prophesied a coming paradise of information abundance, of empowered 
networks of decentralized laborers, of cognitive surplus and a dozen 
other technophilic dreams.

It hasn’t quite turned out that way, in large part because the guardians 
of content have scrambled to keep themselves essential and to enforce 
artificial scarcity, like diamond cartels hoarding their gems in 
out-of-the-way vaults. Instead of easy access to digitized information 
and art, like we were promised, we got paywalls, DRM software, and 
countless other roadblocks. Information wasn’t liberated, but rather 
privatized among a new generation of oligarchs.

Nowhere has this privatizing trend been more aggressive than in the 
realm of scholarly publishing. Contra our every dearly held belief about 
public scholarship, academic publishers like Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, 
and Sage have strapped on their jodhpurs and joined the extractive 
parade, charging extortionate fees for journal articles to which—in the 
parlance of the times—they contribute little added value beyond basic 
distribution. Sometimes, the results are comical—and a little too on the 
nose—such as when Sage throws up a $36 fee to access “Neoliberalism as 
Creative Destruction,” an article by the Marxist geographer David Harvey.

The academic research industry as a whole is lurching toward reform, 
exemplified by the open access movement, which promotes a Creative 
Commons–like ethic in which anyone may build upon published work. In 
short: free to read and free to re-use, as this snazzy video explains. 
But academic publishing remains partial to the same corporatist forces 
that have taken over other parts of university life. Take Elsevier, one 
of the largest (and oldest) academic publishers in the world. With two 
thousand journals, billions in revenue, and profit margins approaching 
an astonishing 40 percent, Elsevier is widely hated by academics and 
also fabulously successful, throttling information even as it claims to 
disseminate it. Elsevier’s stranglehold is clinched not only by its 
formidable titles—it publishes science heavyweights like Cell and The 
Lancet—but also by the big, secretive deals it has been able to strike 
with universities, in which libraries agree to purchase access to 
expensive journal bundles for multiple years.

Universities are stuck with access fees that are steeper now than they 
were in the age of print. (Try to spare a tear for the billionaire hedge 
fund managers otherwise known as the Harvard administration, who in 2012 
complained that their budget for journal bundles had shot up to more 
than $3.5 million a year.) More important is the well-known lament from 
researchers and scientists: we produce research, we give it away to 
journals, we volunteer as editors and peer reviewers, and then we have 
to buy it all back from profit-hungry publishing companies that hardly 
do a thing. That much of this research is done in the public 
interest—and may be funded by the public, through organizations like the 
Environmental Protection Agency—compounds the indignity with petty 
irony. Meanwhile, anyone outside academia has to pay per view, doling 
out more cash for each short article than they would for a hardcover book.

“The University in the New Corporate World”—a scholarly article by Kala 
Saravanamuthu and Tony Tinker—probably has something to teach us about 
the forces that have corporatized higher learning. But unless you’re 
already embedded in a university enclave, with library privileges and a 
string of Kerberos characters, good luck downloading a copy without a 
grim laugh. Elsevier charges individual comers a cool $37.95 for access.

Seeing its bottom line imperiled by the shifting tides of research 
ethics and digital technology, Elsevier has maintained a rigid stance on 
copyright, requiring authors to sign copyright transfer agreements that 
prohibit them from freely sharing their work. In 2012, the company threw 
its weight behind bills like the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and 
initially supported the Research Works Act (RWA), which would have 
stopped federal agencies like the National Institutes of Health from 
requiring that taxpayer-funded research be made available to the public. 
Adding to the portrait of villainy, its parent company, Reed Elsevier, 
used to have a profitable sideline in organizing exhibitions for weapons 
manufacturers—until a 2007 protest caused its CEO “to conclude that the 
defence shows are no longer compatible with Reed Elsevier’s position as 
a leading publisher of scientific, medical, legal and business content.” 
Score one for content, I guess.

This mess of a situation—in which commercial journal publishers remain 
as powerful as ever even as their self-justifications wear increasingly 
thin—has catalyzed crusading information activists, including Swartz, a 
onetime Baffler contributing editor. In 2008 he urged academics and 
others with access to trade passwords, download articles for friends and 
colleagues, and more grandly, to “declare our opposition to this private 
theft of public culture.”

Elbakyan, for her part, was inspired by her experience in an online 
forum for Russian researchers who helped one another pirate papers they 
couldn’t otherwise afford. Sci-Hub formalizes and immeasurably advances 
the acts of information exchange that researchers have long conducted 
among themselves—sharing login credentials, swapping PDFs over email, 
and tweeting hashtags such as #ICanHazPDF. It also makes a tremendous 
amount of scientific and cultural knowledge more accessible to lay 
audiences and to people in developing countries. On a recent day, 
Sci-Hub’s visitor list was topped by people from India, China, Iran, 
Russia, and the United States.

The site design is ingenious; journal articles are retrieved from 
password-protected databases using donated credentials and then added to 
Sci-Hub’s growing library. (Big Think has a nice tour through the tech.) 
And Elbakyan, because she is based in Central Asia and Russia, seems 
mostly shielded from legal consequences, at least at the hands of the 
U.S. legal system.

That doesn’t mean that the state of U.S. copyright law doesn’t concern 
her. In an email, Elbakyan told me that she was looking for pro bono 
legal representation, an advocate who would take the fight to U.S. 
publishers and work “to take copyright off the pedestal”—i.e., not only 
to reform copyright standards, but also to diminish their cultural 

The sense that copyright is practically a moral affront is common among 
information activists, who see in each paywall a barrier thrown in the 
way of the Internet’s emancipatory potential, especially for the 
economically depressed. In Elbakyan’s eyes, copyright itself is an 
impediment to public education. “Sci-Hub is not only about freedom of 
sharing online,” she explained, “but also about the right to education 
and learning, which is denied to people by copyright law.”

For all their similarities, the contrast between the two information 
activists is striking: legal action against Swartz put a decisive end to 
his journal liberation quest, but for now, strict American copyright 
laws and vindictive prosecutors can’t touch Elbakyan. The injunction in 
October (filed by Elsevier, naturally) took down sci-hub.org, but now 
that the site is parked at sci-hub.io—a country-code domain associated 
with the British Indian Ocean Territory (and one that has a surprisingly 
sordid backstory)—that’s unlikely to happen again.

The history of the Internet is littered with false utopias and empty 
revolutionary prophecies, but Sci-Hub seems deserving of the (sometimes 
overheated) praise that it’s received. Others have tried to establish 
similar databases, plugged away at copyright reform, labored over new 
open-access publications, or performed a thousand other small acts of 
disobedience. In 2012, several thousand researchers launched a widely 
chronicled boycott of Elsevier, which drew attention to the company’s 
inflated fees. Sci-Hub, though, has made an end run around incremental 
change and gone straight to public access on a comprehensive scale. It’s 
an act of sabotage that has also created something useful and 
(hopefully) enduring.

Still, the project isn’t sui generis. As Elbakyan noted, “what makes 
Sci-Hub is not the big idea, but the fact the idea works.” At the same 
time, she bristles at comparisons—mostly from teed-off publishers—that 
suggest she has created a “Napster for research papers.” Sci-Hub, she 
insists, is in the public interest.

The panic that Sci-Hub is likely sending through the C-suites at 
Elsevier and Sage hopefully presages a more thorough shakeup of academic 
life and the bloated higher ed industry, from tuition fees to adjunct 
pay. But optimism alone is a cheap tonic. The convoluted economic 
structure of academic publishing, in which profits, rights, and control 
flow upward to managers and executives who have little connection to the 
work being performed, can be found all over the larger information economy.

On the one hand, the information economy offers us more digital content 
than our bleeding eyeballs could ever consume: it’s Pizza Rat videos all 
the way down. On the other, distributors have been remarkably successful 
at enforcing artificial scarcity and nudging our cultural values toward 
curation, packaging, and the endless hunt for virality, likes, and 
various boutique metrics. The myth that all manner of scrappy 
independent artists and writers are bootstrapping a living in the 
digital wilds is just that—a myth. Instead, they are competing for the 
attention of mainstream corporate entities, whether Big Five book 
publishers or YouTube ad-sharing agreements, to solidify their market 
standings. Even Kanye West (or at least the character he plays on 
Twitter) begs for debt relief from Mark Zuckerberg, our chief info overlord.

Seen this way, the newfangled technologies of digital content creation 
and distribution are merely tools with which we might audition for the 
blinkered A&R mavens who still hold the keys to the lumbering apparatus 
of mass consumer culture. There is no independence to be found in 
digital culture, only a new set of oligarchs feasting on the corpses of 
the old while promising that the view from the top of the meritocracy is 
clarifying, even humbling. So please watch this ad.

As for Elsevier, its gauzy corporate website characterizes the 
relationship between Elsevier and its authors as “neither dependent, nor 
independent, but interdependent”—a hollow declaration that elides how 
commercial journal companies, by so thoroughly alienating the writers 
and scholars who furnish the company with work, have only guaranteed 
their eventual obsolescence, or so we can hope. The power lies with 
those who control the platforms and the paywalls. Redefining access will 
mean redefining power too.
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