Alexandra Elbakyan is my hero

Here’s another way I’m privileged: I have free access to the University of Minnesota library system, with all of its journal subscriptions, so I rarely have to worry about finding something published in the major journals, with a few annoying exceptions. It’s only now, then, that I’ve learned about Sci-Hub, but I’ll be using it more, especially to deal with those exceptions.

Alexandra Elbakyan set up Sci-Hub to make science freely available.

For those of you who aren’t already using it, the site in question is Sci-Hub, and it’s sort of like a Pirate Bay of the science world. It was established in 2011 by neuroscientist Alexandra Elbakyan, who was frustrated that she couldn’t afford to access the articles needed for her research, and it’s since gone viral, with hundreds of thousands of papers being downloaded daily. But at the end of last year, the site was ordered to be taken down by a New York district court – a ruling that Elbakyan has decided to fight, triggering a debate over who really owns science.

“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,” Elbakyan told Torrent Freak last year. “Everyone should have access to knowledge regardless of their income or affiliation. And that’s absolutely legal.”

She’s being sued by Elsevier! She is fighting the most evil science publisher in the world. This isn’t just heroism, it’s epic heroism.


  1. F.O. says

    This is *awesome*!
    I have no access to academic libraries, and every time I do some research I end up against paywalls. -_-
    Scientific journals have become a cross between a scam and an extortion racket.
    The sooner they go, the better.

  2. says

    Some time ago the issue of library access came up at School of Doubt. In my German state, everybody can sign up for the university library for free. Everybody. This grants you access to all their stuff PLUS you can make interlibrary loans so if an article is in a magazine your university doesn’t subscribe to, you can have it copied and shipped to you for around 2 bucks, which is a reasonable compensation of the cost

  3. F.O. says

    Just tried it to search an article about depression treatment that I have been trying to get for a good while, I suffer of chronic, drug-resistant depression, and finding new research to discuss with my doctor and try has been instrumental in my recent and painfully slow improvement.
    I could cry.

  4. says

    Giliell, if I may ask: which of the Bundesländer is that and do they allow people from outside to sign up for this?

  5. krakonos says

    Hmm, all it seems to be doing is linking to an already freely available source of the article in question like researchgate. If it can’t find one it even links directly to for example sciencedirect (elsevier!). And its very slow at that. I can get the same result by searching on google scholar much faster.

  6. krakonos says

    @giliell #2 But this looks like a very outdated and slow process in times of electronic articles and databases like pubmed etc. My boss would also get quite angry if I spent 2€ every time I can’t freely download an article. Just asking the author is often the best method.

  7. marcoli says

    Thank you for the heads up! I did not know about this, but I see that it could be a lot better. There are plenty of greater evils in the world, but I have been heartily pissed off at pay walls that charge goddamm $30+ dollars for the privilege of seeing effing papers that are over 30 years old, even! White whine, I know, but I love to hear someone sticking it to the man!
    Technically, this hero might lose with current laws being the way they are.

  8. Rossignol says

    As an academic librarian-in-training, I approve.

    @krakonos #6, I don’t know about the library Gilliel is talking about, but we email most of the interlibrary requests we get. Average turnaround time is about 3 hours.

  9. numerobis says

    ILL is how I have a copy of one of the foundational articles in my field, which lots of people cite despite not having read it (it was published in French, in the Soviet Union). I had to ask for it to be redone because the first time, one of the pages was missing, but it took only a couple days.

  10. gmacs says


    She’s being sued by Elsevier! She is fighting the most evil science publisher in the world.

    Calling Elsevier that is like saying getting kicked in the crotch by a narrow foot is the worst way to get kicked in the crotch. Springer and Wiley are pretty bad, too. Hell, in my time at my current university, I’ve never hit an Elsevier paywall*. Wiley and Springer are both pretty bad about that, though. The worst ones for hitting paywalls are professional society journals.

    *That doesn’t mean they aren’t evil, I have no idea what they charge the institution for subscriptions. Plus, it’s not like they funded or carried out the research.

  11. parasiteboy says

    Payment of $32 is just insane when you need to skim or read tens or hundreds of these papers to do research.

    This is so true. The abstracts do not give you enough information about how the research was done or if the authors are making valid interpretations of their data.

    I don’t see her winning this though, it seems like a straight up and down copyright issue. I was hoping that public access would increase when granting institutions, like NIH and NSF in the US, started a policy to make public, any published peer reviewed paper resulting from one of their grants. But the policy states that this has to be done no later than 12 months after official publication date.

    krakonos@5 The website wasn’t working great for me either, but using the DOI from some papers that were not available through google scholar worked really well.

  12. says

    “Information wants to be free” has never been more true.

    Considering that much of science in those papers is produced with grant money from taxpayers or donations to universities, it is appalling that it gets locked away and effectively owned by a company that did nothing to produce it yet profits from it. Elsevier makes record companies look charitable and honest by comparison.

  13. mike47 says

    Longtime lurker here. Help! Every time I click on an article I get a page in Cyrillic alphabet! I am trying to research PMR, with which I have recently been diagnosed and need some hard info.

  14. andyb says

    But publishing costs money? How do you want publishers to raise money? (My impression is subscription-based revenue is falling.) Do you prefer costs shifted to authors? This seems to be where academic journals are headed and I hate this model.

    Anyone can walk into a university library and xerox an article. This is what you did before the internet….

  15. Jake Harban says

    IANAL, but IIRC you can’t copyright facts.

    Thus, should a science publisher wish to constrain sharing of their papers, they are stuck between a rock and a hard place— either their science papers are true descriptions of the facts as we know them and thus not subject to copyright, or they are fictional creative works and thus not science.

  16. gmacs says

    andyb @19

    Authors currently pay a lot of money to submit papers. IIRC, PZ had a post about the cost of submitting to J Neurosci a year or two ago, and it was an outlandish sum*. There are plenty of places able to host free journal articles as it is, so what is the excuse for these companies?

    You’re also ignoring that every experiment and project involves a lot of background reading for its planning. That includes more than just the articles the authors cite; there are plenty of articles they will read that turn out to be useless to them. If they have to pay $30 each for a good portion of those, that’s going to rival publishing costs very quickly.

    *Actually, here it is from the publication itself. $1,260 for members, $1,890 for non-members. But those articles still aren’t open source. You have to pay close to $3K if you want your research paper to be available to everyone.

  17. opposablethumbs says

    @mike47 #17
    Can you see a search bar? I am advised that if you can see something on that page that looks like a search bar, it’s worth typing in what you’re looking for (even for those of us who can’t read the rest of the page :-) )

    I hope you find some good and useful info.

  18. mike47 says

    #22 opposablethumbs I hopped over to google scholar and found a trove of useful information. Since I am starting at a point of zero knowledge about this thing (other than the experience of intense pain-very instructive) almost any real information above the usual dictionary definitions is helpful. I did think about just typing in the apparent search bar in English but was too impatient. I should just chill. Thanks.

  19. says

    The small one in the down left corner. I think it is residents of the state, but I think other German universities have similar policies.

    I was obviously talking about articles that are only available in physical form, duh

  20. andyb says

    gmacs @ 21

    I am not in the medical field. In my field (geology), very few journals currently charge authors, except for color figures (but this is changing). No academic, even at the smallest school, pays for articles. They are either available online, or can be requested and sent to your email via inter-library loan.

    I suspect places like Research Gate are making it more challenging for publishers to raise money. In addition, open access journals are more likely to be read and cited, creating the pressure to shift costs from subscribers to authors. Jour of Neuroscience is perhaps ahead of the curve – I’m suspect publishing costs for authors of ~$1000+ will be typical.

  21. parasiteboy says

    Jake Harban@20
    In the non-open access journals authors sign a copyright agreement with the journal. You do have the ability to use the info. (text, figures, and tables) in your presentations. If you wanted to use your paper in a class you can copy it for everyone. If you wanted to put a figure from a previous paper (yours or another authors) you have to get permission from the journal it was originally published.
    Once something is considered common knowledge then the copyright issue becomes a moot point.
    With all this said, I have never heard of any author of their own paper being challenged about a copyright issue.

  22. parasiteboy says


    Anyone can walk into a university library and xerox an article. This is what you did before the internet….

    Only if the college or university has the article. I don’t know the stats, but getting an ILL from them is not always possible if you are not affiliated with the college or university.

    Out of curiosity, what publication model do you prefer? I think open access is good because, although the author has to pay, granting agencies allow for this in the grants budget. Also if you do not have a grant or other funding to pay you can seek a waiver of the fee. Admittedly, I don’t know how many waivers get granted vs. rejected, but if your science is good i don’t see them turning it away.

  23. multitool says

    No one has stopped the Pirate Bay yet, and even if they did it would be replaced immediately.
    Elsevier might vent their rage at Elbakyan but it won’t gain them anything.

  24. zetafunction says

    @gmacs: elsevier is EVIL more than Springer or Wiley because 1) they force libraries to subscribe to bundles of journals, not just whatever-the-library is interested in, thus shooting the prices up and 2) they allow unscrupulous editors to publish as “peer-reviewed” low quality stuff by themselves and their friends – this has disastrous effects in countries where research assessment and funding decisions are based on quantitative metrics like number of citations (it is very easy to get a higher one if you and your best friends systematically quote each other).

  25. Crimbly says

    I feel – although it’s probably not legal either – that this is a good place to mention Twitter’s #icanhazpdf, which fulfils a similar function to Sci-Hub, if a bit more erratically.

  26. stumble says

    One of the things that infuriates me about paywalls to scientific articles is the chilling effect it has on non-commercial/non-academic scientific understanding. I am an attorney working in business law, there is absolutely no commercial justification for me to pay for articles on material science, yet I find them fascinating and read them regularly. But every time I hit a paywall I just have to drop my interest because spending thousands of dollars researching something that has zero commercial benefit simply isn’t justified.

    It is this restraint on the dissemination of knowledge I find so objectionable. There are millions of people who want to read these articles, and then may or may not do something with them, but at a minimum the net gain to humanity of everyone understanding the world we live in a little bit better is good for all of humanity. Wether it is someone reading actual trials of vaccine research and recognizing that they don’t cause autism, or a farmer in Delhi reading about the latest science on irrigation. It all adds to the collective wisdom of humanity and benefits us all in the end.

    Wrapping scientific discovery up behind paywalls and allowing only the privileged few access doesn’t just limit scientific discovery, it also harms all of humanity by the collective loss of turning that knowledge to individual good.

  27. andyb says

    @27: “Although the author has to pay…”

    Funding rates at NSF are abysmally low for most programs, and many departments have no budget for publication costs – no matter how good the science. Why would you think publishers charging $30 an article won’t turn away authors who can’t pay? Author-supported publishing costs may affect the ability for underfunded science to even reach an audience. I’m an underfunded academic – so naturally I’m wary of these changes.