Sci-Hub vs. the Scarcity-Mongers

Jacob SilvermanApril 01, 2016
An October injunction took down, but now it's parked at a new domain.

An October injunction took down, but now it’s parked at a new domain.

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.

Instead of easy access, we got paywalls, DRM software, and countless other roadblocks.

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.

Information wasn’t liberated, but rather privatized among a new generation of oligarchs.

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 importance.

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, but now that the site is parked at—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.