Eduindex is making the world’s Academic Research free to all

Hitting a paywall is a regular occurrence for those trying to read the latest research study. But now anyone with internet can access for free almost all the scholarly research produced in the world.
That solution, however, involves using a database of pirated research papers known as Sci-Hub. It hosts more than 60 million papers with half a million downloads per day. 
Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan in May 2016. She’s in an undisclosed location after losing a U.S. copyright case. The Star interviewed her through a secure messaging app.Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan in May 2016. She’s in an undisclosed location after losing a U.S. copyright case. The Star interviewed her through a secure messaging app.(ALEXANDER KRASSOTKIN PHOTO)
Before Sci-Hub, you had to pay roughly $40 for each article, unless you attended a university willing to pay the millions required for bundled journal subscriptions.
Sci-Hub is the creation of Alexandra Elbakyan, a 30-year-old computer scientist from Kazakhstan. She has been hailed a hero and the Robin Hood of the academic publishing world. In 2016, the journal Nature named her one of the “10 people who mattered this year” in science.
She has also been called a pirate and thief. In 2017, a U.S. court found Sci-Hub guilty of copyright infringement against Elsevier, the giant academic publisher of 2,500 titles that include The Lancet and Cell, and awarded $15 million (U.S.) in damages. 
Elbakyan now lives in an undisclosed location, unable to travel to the U.S. because she fears she may be arrested. The Star used a secure messaging application to interview her.
Elbakyan argues that she has done nothing wrong. She says she is simply ensuring that scientific knowledge — a largely publicly funded resource — is accessible to everyone.
Every year in Canada, the public funds billions of dollars in research through government granting agencies. Publicly funded researchers conduct the research as well as write, review and edit the research papers. 
Yet most of these research papers sit behind the paywalls of multinational publishing companies, which enjoy profit margins of 35 to 40 per cent. Then, schools like the University of Toronto and Ryerson University pay the publishers millions in fees every year to access the journals. 
The University of Toronto stated in an email to the Star that it paid more than $21 million in subscription fees to publishers in 2017-18. In total, Canadian universities pay about $300 million a year in fees.
The current system also prevents academics in lower-income countries from reading and using the latest research because their institutions cannot afford the subscription fees. This hampers scientific progress, according to Elbakyan and other proponents of open access. 
When academic publishing started more than 300 years ago, most journals were owned by non-profit medical societies or institutions. Subscription fees were fairly modest.
That has all changed, according to Heather Morrison, an information studies professor at the University of Ottawa. In the past 30 years, international for-profit publishing companies have been buying journals run by smaller publishers. Now just five companies publish half of all scholarly journals.
These large publishers now have “a stranglehold on the market,” said Morrison. Universities cannot easily negotiate subscription fees because students and academics require access to all (or at least most) of the journals. As a result, she said, the large for-profit publishers are making “more and more money.”
Globally, subscription fees are rising about five per cent to seven per cent annually, according to a report from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL). The for-profit publishers charge between three and 10 times as much per article as non-profits, a 2014 study found. These companies post collective revenues of about $10 billion a year, with vast profit margins.
The rising costs have led some Canadian universities to cancel subscriptions, risking the anger of their academics and students. In the U.S., due to rising costs as well as support for the open-access movement, the University of California recently did not renew its subscriptions with Elsevier, one of the big five publishers.
The high prices are the result of “running a secure and trusted digital operation at Elsevier’s scale,” Tom Reller, Elsevier’s vice-president of global communications, said in an email to the Star. 
Elsevier “takes care of everything on (the authors’) behalf once they submit an article to us,” Reller said, including “helping them get their work peer reviewed, accepted by editors, typeset and enriched with the latest technologies that render it searchable and discoverable.”
According to Reller, some publishers have explored paying authors or institutions, but found that payments “created perverse incentives and ran counter to long-standing traditions in science.” The payoff for the authors, Reller said, is having their articles published in “our high profile and trusted journals.”
But the system creates an imbalance, Morrison said. Only those at well-funded universities can easily access the newest research, leaving out academics in poorer countries as well as the public who paid for the research. 
The open-access movement sought to solve these problems. In 2003, a group of researchers published the Budapest Open Access Initiative. “The public good (the internet makes) possible is the worldwide electronic distribution of the peer-reviewed journal literature and completely free and unrestricted access to it by all scientists, scholars, teachers, students, and other curious minds,” said the manifesto.
By the late 2000s, there were a number of high-quality open-access journals. Most charged authors a fee for publication (waived for authors from low-income countries) and provided free online access to readers. For many researchers, the publication fee was paid through their grant. 
More than 50 per cent of all newly published research today, however, is still behind paywalls. 
According to Morrison, one reason is that many universities and granting agencies use publications in prestigious journals — most of which are paywalled journals — to help determine who should receive grants, promotions and tenure. “If academics care about their careers” they have to seek out these journals, Morrison said. 
This, wrote Elsevier’s Reller, is a major reason why researchers select Elsevier’s journals: “Perhaps most importantly for (the authors), we operate the journal and maintain its brand prestige that researchers use to progress their career, earn tenure, win grants and showcase their research to the world.” 
Authors are voluntarily submitting an increasing number of articles to Elsevier every year, indicating to Reller that authors “feel we are adding a significant amount of value and they trust us to review, publish and promote their research.” Morrison agreed that researchers are drawn to prestigious journals because they ensure high-quality peer review.
Another barrier to publishing in open-access journals may be the publication fee of several thousand dollars, charged to the authors. It is a large amount of money for those conducting research without a grant. Many paywalled journals allow authors to publish for free.
Morrison says there is another solution. Authors who publish in paywalled journals can archive their paper in an open-access online repository, which is permitted by the majority of publishers. The term for this is “green open access.” Until recently, it was difficult for readers to locate the papers in these repositories. New tools, like the browser add-on Unpaywall, make it simpler. When readers come across a paywalled paper online, clicking on the Unpaywall icon on their browser will take them directly to an open-access version.
But fewer than 10 per cent of researchers archive their paywalled research paper the year it is published. According to Morrison, this is due to a lack of awareness and a lack of time. Archiving requires at least several hours of work. “Researchers are very busy people. If it’s not going to have a direct impact on their career, it’s not going to get done,” Morrison said. 
Granting organizations could require grant recipients to ensure that their publication is immediately open-access. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation does this. The Gates Foundation grants also pay for publication fees in open-access journals.
The three major public granting agencies in Canada — together called the Tri-Agency — require grant recipients to make their publication open-access within 12 months of publication. 
Compliance is low, however. About 40 per cent of researchers fail to make their publication open-access within the year, according to Alison Bourgon, the acting director general of the science policy branch at the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), one of the three agencies. She said the agency does not enforce the policy and prefers to use an “encouragement approach.”
The other two research agencies, Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC), do not currently track compliance, according to Kevin Fitzgibbons, an executive director at NSERC. He told the Star the two agencies are reviewing CIHR’s approach to see if it would work for them.
For Elbakyan, poor access to information is more than a theoretical concern. In her blog, she recalls how difficult it was as an undergraduate at Kazakh National Tech University to access the latest research. 
In 2011, she came up with an idea. The 22-year-old already knew how to get around government-blocked websites in Kazakhstan using an “anonymizer” website that made her location untraceable. Within a couple of days, she had written the code for Sci-Hub and uploaded it. 
Sci-Hub is a database of pirated research holding millions of research papers.

Sci-Hub is a database of pirated research holding millions of research papers. (SCI-HUB)

To access the research articles, she said she uses the institutional logins and passwords but will not provide “any information” about how she obtains them. She declined to say if she currently purchases logins and passwords from supporters or hackers but does acknowledge that she “perhaps used a PayPal account to buy some proxies, but this was a long time ago.”
Some have claimed Elbakyan uses phishing scams to get the credentials. (Phishers use a legitimate-looking email to trick the recipient into giving login credentials and other personal information.) Elbakyan has denied this on her blog, stating that it is possible that some people who donated credentials conducted phishing scams but “Sci-Hub is not doing any phishing by itself.”
Sci-Hub grew rapidly. It now contains “almost all scholarly literature,” according to a 2018 research study, with more than 60 million papers representing 85 per cent of the articles locked behind paywalls. 
Sci-Hub remains a one-woman show. According to Elbakyan, she does all the programming, server configuration as well as communication with users and media on her own. Sci-Hub’s expenses are a few thousand a month, covered by user donations. Payments are in bitcoin only. PayPal shut down her account in 2013 after a complaint from Elsevier about Sci-Hub’s copyright infringement. Donations have dropped off as a result, said Elbakyan. “People send donations to PayPal accounts very actively, unlike bitcoin.”
Since the 2017 copyright infringement ruling, Elbakyan does not disclose her location as a “precaution” to protect Sci-Hub. Whenever authorities shut Sci-Hub down, a mirror site takes over. (Mirror sites contain the same content as the original site but have a different web address.)
“(We are) … aware that Sci-Hub’s operator continues to attempt to justify the outright theft and massive infringement in which she is engaged as a purported service to the public,” the Association of American Publishers, an organization that represents academic publishers including Elsevier, said in a statement to the Star. “The publishing industry rejects that notion entirely, as have U.S. courts and a number of EU jurisdictions in which publishers have successfully obtained injunctions requiring ISPs to block access to the site and its related mirrors.”
“Scientific knowledge belongs to humanity,” Elbakyan told the Star when asked about the lawsuits. If distributing knowledge is truly the goal, she is “in a way, helping out” the academic publishers of the world.
Some academics also oppose Sci-Hub.
“Sci-Hub breaks the law in order to achieve an immediate goal that however distracts us from important sustainable solutions,” wrote Ernesto Priego, a lecturer at the University of London. It “is a short cut, a workaround, that distributes scholarly content in a form not intended by its authors, let alone its original publishers.”
Elbakyan responded in her blog: “Was it intended by the authors that their work will be hidden behind paywalls forever?” 
The lack of outcry from academics about the widespread use of Sci-Hub indicates Elbakyan may be correct. Academics want their work to be widely read by everyone, including by academics in low-income countries. If the publishers are not able to ensure this, Sci-Hub provides a solution. When asked by the Star about access for academics in lower-income countries, University of Ottawa’s Morrison replied “I have no objection to … Sci-Hub.” 
For those who struggle with the idea of using a pirated database, a legal solution may be on the horizon. In 2018, a group of major public granting organizations from the EU created Plan S. It proposes that by 2021, all the researchers who receive grants from their organizations must ensure that their research papers are, upon publication, immediately openly available in an open-access journal or online repository. The grants will cover publication fees. The publications will be free to access and free to use. 
To date, 16 major granting organizations have signed on to the proposal, most from the EU. Many organizations from other parts of the world have provided institutional statements of support. 
The Canadian Tri-Agency has not signed on or given a letter of support. According to the CIHR’s Bourgon, equitable access for those in lower-income countries is a priority, and CIHR is “monitoring the developments related to Plan S.” She said any changes to the open-access policy would have to get the approval of the Canadian research community. 
Elbakyan says we can’t waste time. “Sci-Hub is not talking, but actually solving this problem, providing access to those researchers who need it, including myself.”
Sheryl Spithoff is a family physician at Women’s College Hospital and researcher with the Department of Family and Community Medicine at the University of Toronto.
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