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Alexandra Elbakyan

The ‘Edward Snowden’ of pirated scholarly literature has banned Russian Internet users because of a personal grudge

Source: Meduza
Alexandra Elbakyan
Alexandra Elbakyan
Krassotkin / Wikimedia Commons

In September 2011, a student from Kazakhstan named Alexandra Elbakyan created the controversial website Sci-Hub, which now offers a database of more than 62 million academic papers and articles available for download, using educational proxies to bypass subscriptions that can cost tens of thousands of dollars. This month, Elbakyan blocked all Internet users in Russia from accessing Sci-Hub, after taking offense to Russian scholars mocking her political views and naming a parasitoid insect in her honor.

Alexandra Elbakyan, the founder of Sci-Hub, is an expert in neuro-computer interfaces. She’s also a devout Communist and an advocate for the free dissemination of information. People use her website to download articles from expensive academic journals completely for free, even from scientific publications where a single text can cost as much as $70, and subscriptions can run tens of thousands of dollars. Elbakyan acquires these articles from volunteers around the world who work or study at universities with access to content behind journals’ paywalls.

As of late 2016, Sci-Hub’s servers held more than 60 million publications. Journalists at The New York Times have compared Elbakyan to Edward Snowden. In December 2016, the magazine Nature, one of the most authoritative scientific publications in the world, named Elbakyan as one of the year’s most influential people in science.

Vitalina Kirgizova, a molecular biologist and junior researcher at the Institute of Bioogranic Chemistry at the Russian Academy of Sciences, told Meduza that the launch of Sci-Hub helped spark the start of her own active scientific work: “I’d have tabs with links from the website open most of the time. Without it, it was impossible to imagine setting up experiments in a molecular biology laboratory or assembling genomes. My friends and I donated money to the site when it started crowdfunding. There was even a slogan: skip that club sandwich and coffee, and donate the 150 rubles [$3] to the good of science.”

Sci-Hub’s activities have lead to conflicts more than once. In June 2017, for example, one of the biggest publishing houses in the world, Elsevier, won a $15-million lawsuit against Sci-Hub in a New York court for disseminating pirated copies of 100 of its scholarly articles. Unfortunately for the publishing house, Alexandra Elbakyan doesn’t have any assets in the United States, making it impossible to collect so much as a cent of the court-ordered compensation. “The requested amount is more than the project has collected and spent in several years of operation,” Elbakyan told Meduza.

Sci-Hub’s founder has quarrelled with Russian scholars, as well, but not about money. The bad blood spilled into the public eye in October 2015, when the science-related charity “Dynasty” announced that it would shut down, after Russia’s Justice Ministry labeled it a “foreign agent.” Not sharing the liberal political views of Dynasty’s top management, Elbakyan deleted from her Vkontakte group all users who expressed support for the charity. And she didn’t stop there: she also created a survey where users had to choose between Dynasty and Sci-Hub. After the poll was finished, Elbakyan purged her Vkontakte community of everyone who sided with the charity. (In a Vkontakte post on September 6, Elbakyan called Meduza’s report “fake news” and insisted that she only banned Dynasty supporters who “acted out” and insulted her.)

In the opinion of many of her Russian colleagues, Elbakyan reacts too harshly and intolerantly to anyone who doesn’t share her views on socio-political issues.

Alexander Panchin, a Russian biologist, science communicator, and “Enlightenment” Award laureate, has repeatedly criticized Elbakyan for her ideological behavior. Panchin says her thin skin when it comes to Russia’s scientific community has a long history. “Sometimes a person creates such a useful project that you try your very best to sympathize with them. You can see that there’s nobody home upstairs, but you’re ready to ignore it. And you’ll put up with the insults. But sometimes no amount of initial trust and respect is enough to continue thinking good things about a person,” Panchin explained.

Things finally came to a head recently when Andrey Khalam, a junior researcher at the Zoological Institute at the Russian Academy of Science, named a new species of parasitoid insect after Elbakyan and announced it publicly. In response, Sci-Hub’s creator closed her website to Internet users in Russia, calling Khalam’s gesture “an extreme injustice,” arguing that, in her opinion, the real parasites are scientific publishing houses.

“The name of the new species was probably the cause or the ‘last straw,’” Khalam says. “But the description of the species and naming it in honor of Alexandra was [meant as] thanks for creating her website and recognition of its contribution to the development of science. This was all written in the article about the new species. Alexandra’s reaction was completely unexpected to me. By the way, the taxon here isn’t a parasite but a parasitoid [a parasite that always kills its host]. In essence, we’re talking about a predator — a predatory wasp.”

Elbakyan told Meduza that the naming gesture turned out ugly, whatever the scientist’s intentions: “If my project is really so useful, it deserves more respect. By the way, in China they had to rename the beetle named after [Communist Party General Secretary] Xi Jinping.”

On Sci-Hub, Elbakyan published a message to Russian visitors, complaining about “harassment” by Russia’s liberal opposition. “These people enjoy universal support, and some even hold high posts at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Not only do they win prestigious scholarly prizes like the Enlightenment Award and awards for “service to science,” but they also get an approving pat on the back for insulting Alexandra. [...] In connection with such popular love, it makes sense to cease our work in this country. [...] Stew in your own shit. I’m sick of it. Russian science? Good riddance to bad rubbish,” Elbakyan wrote in her statement, published on Sci-Hub.

Speaking to Meduza, Elbakyan added that “science has no future” in Russia, calling her decision to block Russians’ access a “symbolic gesture.” “I’m not trying to oppress anyone. But people need to understand what’s going on. I’d like to see apologies and the publication of materials refuting the lies that were spread about me, as well as an official acknowledgement of the importance of projects like Sci-Hub,” Elbakyan said.

“It’s one thing to be offended by specific people, but it’s something else to hold a grudge against an entire nation’s scientists,” biologist Alexander Panchin told Meduza. “Russian science has its problems, but there are also many talented researchers and good projects. Many people value her work. You can’t ban someone just because you’re offended. It’s a shame that the fate of this important project depends on the grudge of a single individual.”

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Russian text by Alexandra Sivtsova, translation by Kevin Rothrock