Nature Picks ‘Pirate’ in This Year’s Top People in Science

Opinion

Over the past year science's pirate portal Sci-Hub has become the center of an academic debate about copyright's 'stranglehold' on science. The site was sued by one of the largest academic publishers but also received praise from researchers. This controversy makes its founder, Alexandra Elbakyan, one of the top ten people that mattered in science this year, according to Nature.

alexandraLast year, academic publisher Elsevier filed a complaint against Sci-Hub and several related “pirate” sites.

It accused the websites of making academic papers widely available to the public, without permission.

While Sci-Hub is nothing like the average pirate site, it is just as illegal according to Elsevier’s legal team, which obtained a preliminary injunction from a New York District Court last fall.

The injunction ordered Sci-Hub’s founder Alexandra Elbakyan to quit offering access to any Elsevier content. However, this didn’t happen.

Instead of taking Sci-Hub down, the lawsuit and the associated media attention only helped the site grow. Just a few months ago we reported that its users were downloading hundreds of thousands of papers per day.

Elbakyan put her finger on one of the biggest frustrations of scientists; the fact that so much fundamental research is hidden behind a paywall, where only an elite group can access them.

While piracy is ‘not done’ for most academics, at least until after they graduate, Sci-Hub has received a lot of support. This week the prestigious publication Nature even picked the site’s founder as one of the ten people that mattered in 2016.

“Few people support the fact that she acted illegally, but many see Sci-Hub as advancing the cause of the open-access movement, which holds that papers should be made (legally) free to read and reuse,” Nature writes.

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One of the open access supporters who praises Sci-Hub’s founder is Michael Eisen, a biologist at the University of California, Berkeley

“What she did is nothing short of awesome,” he tells Nature. “Lack of access to the scientific literature is a massive injustice, and she fixed it with one fell swoop.”

For now, Elbakyan doesn’t see any reason to stop what she’s doing. When Elsevier shut down Sci-Hub’s domain name, the site simply moved to a new one, continuing business as usual.

This stance is welcomed by many researchers, especially in developing countries where universities often don’t have the funds to pay for access to these papers. As such, Elbakyan believes she’s doing the right thing.

“Is there anything wrong or shameful in running a research-access website such as Sci-Hub? I think no, therefore I can be open about my activities,” she says.

At the same time, the pushback against Elsevier continues to grow. Just recently, Taiwanese universities and German research institutions decided to cancel subscriptions to its journals, stating that the costs are unreasonably high.

On the legal front, progress in the case between Sci-Hub and Elsevier has been slow. There’s a pre-trial conference scheduled for February next year, so it will take a few more months at least before that concludes.

Meanwhile, the download counter at Sci-Hub keeps on spinning. Thus far, the site has served up 75 million downloads this year, which by one estimate is good for three percent of all science publisher downloads worldwide.

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