Alexandra Elbakyan, has landed a major blow against the multi-billion dollar control of publicly funded research. The information should belong to the public, not a small group of academic publishers. She developed a pirate web scraper service, Sci-Hub, a website that provides free access to millions of paywalled and open-access research papers and books.
Alexandra Elbakyan lives in hiding, beyond the jurisdiction of the US courts, and moves Sci-Hub between domains as it gets taken down.
Academic publishing is an incredibly lucrative business. Half the world’s research is published by five companies: Reed Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, Springer, Wiley-Blackwell and the American Chemical Society. Their profit margins are reportedly 40 percent. The reason it is such a lucrative business is because the costs are picked up by taxpayers, and the profits are kept by the publishing companies. Publicly funded researchers do all the work, and then it ends up in the hands of these publishers, and they sell it for exorbitant subscriptions fees, and the libraries and institutions that pay the fees are often paying with taxpayer money.
For her service to the world, Alexandra was sued in 2015 by Elsevier and in 2017 by the American Chemical Society, resulting in nearly $20 million of fines and damages against her. US courts have characterized her work as copyright violations and theft.
There are others who are challenging the big publishers. The brilliant innovator Aaron Swartz tried to release 5 million scientific articles into the public domain. Facing decades in a US federal prison for this selfless act, he took his life.
This multibillion-dollar industry that traps knowledge behind paywalls was pioneered by Robert Maxwell, a notorious conman. He realized scientists needed to know about the developments in their field, and he saw an opportunity to make money. Now, the journals that control access to academic papers can charge outrageous fees for the knowledge.