Supporting Alexandra Elbakyan’s nomination for the 2020 John Maddox PrizeJune 15, 2020
The John Maddox Prize has been awarded annually since 2012 to “researchers who have shown great courage and integrity in standing up for science and scientific reasoning against fierce opposition and hostility”. The prize is a joint initiative between the journal Nature and the Sense about Science charity.
Fergus Kane nominated Alexandra Elbakyan, creator of Sci-Hub, for the prize in 2018. While selected to a final shortlist, she did not win. Dr. Kane has nominated Elbakyan a second time for 2020 and named me as a reference after reading our study on the coverage of Sci-Hub’s catalog.
Here’s a figure where we show the growth in PDF downloads from Sci-Hub over time, based on server log data that Elbakyan has made public:
Sci-Hub’s growth reflects the urgent need of scholars to access the literature. As a proponent of a more open future for science, it is my honor to recommend Elbakyan for the Maddox Prize.
In 2011, Alexandra Elbakyan unveiled her tool Sci-Hub for providing fulltext access to scholarly articles, especially articles that are paywalled by their publishers. The service was available at sci-hub.org until 2015, when publishing giant Elsevier was able to shut down Sci-Hub’s .org domain with an uncontested lawsuit in the U.S. court system.
In the following years, Sci-Hub adopted additional domains including .bz, .cc, .cn, .cool, .fun, .ga, .gq, .hk, .io, .is, .la, .mn, .mu, .name, .nu, .nz, .ooo, .shop, .tv, .wang, and .ws. All of these domains are now defunct. Yet Sci-Hub persevered, and, as I write, is available at https://sci-hub.st, .se, .tw, and .ee. I begin with this list of censored domains as a testament to the opposition Sci-Hub has encountered.
This opposition should come as no surprise. Sci-Hub challenges the subscription publishing business model that brings in over $10 billion US in revenue annually from toll access scholarly journals. Communicating science is of critical importance. Yet we inherited a publishing system whose design impedes access and reuse. Paywalling publicly funded research is unacceptable, especially since the proceeds don’t fund the research or reward the creators (authors, peer reviewers, and editors).
Elbakyan recognizes the injustice of the current system, writing on the Sci-Hub homepage:
We fight inequality in knowledge access across the world. The scientific knowledge should be available for every person regardless of their income, social status, [and] geographical location
Nearly all research stakeholders benefit from open access. Scholars want to disseminate their ideas. Funders want a societal return on their investment. Readers want access and the right to view research on any platform. Text miners want to accelerate the pace of discovery by using machines to extract insights from the literature.
Were authors, funders, and institutions to decide that all future publications must be open, toll access journals would have no choice but to switch. Sadly, the scholarly community has been too indecisive and laggard. Ultimately, culpability lies with authors who sign copyright transfer agreements, ceding society’s ability to access and reuse materials the public has funded. Were more scientists willing to take personal action to end the antiquated toll access system, there would be no need for Sci-Hub. But this has not been the case, and Sci-Hub, led by Elbakyan, has taken on the challenge of making sure all humans have access to the scientific record, while promoting an open future.
As libraries continue to cancel major journal subscriptions, we owe Elbakyan immense gratitude. In a decade from now, we will likely witness the vast majority of articles published openly. While initiatives like Plan S and preprints are playing a role, they are secondary to Sci-Hub. Elbakyan sees her contribution in making open access inevitable, explaining:
The effect of long-term operation of Sci-Hub will be that publishers change their publishing models to support Open Access, because closed access will make no sense anymore.
To prove this point, I led a 2018 study that found Sci-Hub already contained 85% of articles in toll access journals.
Elbakyan has made personal sacrifices for her cause. According to U.S. courts, she owes $15 million to Elsevier and $4.8 million to the American Chemical Society for copyright infringement. To highlight the absurdity of this punishment, the court fined Elbakyan $150,000 per article, since Elsevier’s suit specifically alleged infringement of 100 articles (including one U.K. government work that legally belongs in the public domain). Based outside of U.S. jurisdiction, Elbakyan did not file a legal defense against these suits, although she did write a letter to the judge.
Detractors accuse Elbakyan of being a malicious cyber criminal. The U.S. Justice Department even investigated her for ties to Russian intelligence. But there is no public evidence to support the conclusion that Sci-Hub has any other objective than universal access to research. And the operation appears to be funded primarily by donations and volunteer effort.
Elbakyan has remained steadfast in the face of these smear campaigns and legal challenges. She engages the public via her blog, Twitter, VK, and comments to the media. Of course, she must maintain a high level of privacy and restrict public appearances given the controversial nature of her work. But Sci-Hub speaks for itself. Calling Sci-Hub the “only solution available to access articles [for many researchers]”, Elbakyan comments:
What differentiates Sci-Hub from this talk, is that Sci-Hub not talking, but actually solving this problem, providing access to those researchers who need it.