Thursday, February 25, 2016

Scientist who makes research free to all is fighting journals in court over ownership of knowledge

Alexandra Elbakyan
Tired of trying to read a scientific research paper and getting stuck staring at a costly paywall? Kazakhstani neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who said she was frustrated that her own research was being stymied by fees that she could not afford, has been dubbed the "Robin Hood of Science" for creating a website called Science Hub that makes "almost every single peer-reviewed paper ever published freely available online," Fiona MacDonald reports for Science Alert. Elbakyan is fighting a ruling last year by a New York district court to take down the site, "triggering a debate over who really owns science."

Elbakyan told MacDonald, "Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research. I obtained these papers by pirating them. Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal."

Science Hub "works in two stages," MacDonald writes. "First of all when you search for a paper, Sci-Hub tries to immediately download it from fellow pirate database LibGen. If that doesn't work, Sci-Hub is able to bypass journal paywalls thanks to a range of access keys that have been donated by anonymous academics. This means that Sci-Hub can instantly access any paper published by the big guys, including JSTOR, Springer, Sage, and Elsevier, and deliver it to you for free within seconds. The site then automatically sends a copy of that paper to LibGen, to help share the love."

While Elsevier is suing Elbakyan for "irreparable harm," she claims the research should be protected under the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, "which states that 'everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits'," MacDonald writes. She also said academic publishing differs from the film or music industries, where pirating steals from creators: "All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from the music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold."

Experts predict that if Elsevier wins the case it will get "around $750 to $150,000 for each pirated article," MacDonald writes. But Elbakyan, who lives in Russia and doesn't own any U.S. assets—which would make it hard to force her to pay—"claims that it's Elsevier that have the illegal business model." Elbakyan, who said "she hopes that the lawsuit will set a precedent, and make it very clear to the scientific world either way who owns their ideas," told MacDonald, "If Elsevier manages to shut down our projects or force them into the darknet, that will demonstrate an important idea: that the public does not have the right to knowledge. We have to win over Elsevier and other publishers and show that what these commercial companies are doing is fundamentally wrong." (Read more)

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