This student put 50 million stolen research articles online. And they’re free.

Apr 12, 2016

Photo credit: The Washington Post

By Michael S. Rosenwald

Alexandra Elbakyan is a highbrow pirate in hiding.

The 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan is operating a searchable online database of nearly 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles, shattering the $10 billion-per-year paywall of academic publishers.

Elbakyan has kept herself beyond the reach of a federal judge who late last year issued an injunction against her site, noting that damages could total $150,000 per article — a sum that Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis, a journal in her database, could help calculate. But she is not hiding from responsibility.

“There are many ways to argue that copyright infringement is not theft, but even if it is, it is justified in this case,” she said in an instant-message interview via Google. “All content should be copied without restriction. But for education and research, copyright laws are especially damaging.”

Elbakyan is pursuing a master’s degree in the history of science while pursuing the worldwide liberation of knowledge from, as she sees it, the tyranny of for-profit publishers. Her ideology was shaped growing up in a former Soviet republic where access to information and the Internet was difficult.

She has been compared to Robin Hood, although she said: “Sometimes I think it is not a good comparison, since what he was doing was illegal. And sharing books and research articles should not be illegal.”

Many academics, university librarians and longtime advocates for open scholarly research are closely following Elbakyan’s efforts. They think she is finally giving academic publishers their Napster moment, a reference to the illegal music-sharing service that disrupted and permanently altered the industry.

“While we don’t condone fraud and using illegal sources, I will say that I appreciate how she is shining a light on just how out-of-whack the system is of providing easy access to basic information that our universities and scholars need to advance science and research,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, an organization that advocates for open access to research. “This has been a problem for decades.”

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9 comments on “This student put 50 million stolen research articles online. And they’re free.

  • Information and knowledge should be free. Copyright in such cases is itself a form of theft, indeed the real theft. The whole concept of ‘intellectual property’ is nothing but the privatisation of the public realm of ideas for the benefit of the few. And in there public face these few are not even human individuals being fairly rewarded for their own efforts but vast fascist corporations making obscene profits.

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  • There are … ways to argue that copyright infringement is not theft …

    There are, equally, ways to argue that copyright is itself an infringement of our natural rights. Putting information behind paywalls is anti-democratic by definition.

    Indeed, is not the withholding of information a form of theft? Is the polity at the very least, if not society at large, not impoverished by anyone who advertises knowledge yet fails to make it freely available. Yet newspapers do this every day …

    Specialist publishers, including scientific publishers, are examples of a wider social ill. The question we should be asking is: What value does the Publisher add?

    In the past the costs of storage and distribution meant that there was a minor reason to ask someone to aggregate the content by subject (like a Science Journal or Legal Case Index), organize that content and advertise its availability. In return they charged a small fee for these minor administrative tasks.

    As the main story points out, the Net does away with the vast majority of the costs of publishing.

    Publishers of records in the professional sphere do not have the costs associated with creating the content. A legal publisher does not fund the courts, a scientific publisher does not fund the research and a medical publisher does not have to fund the management of the patients and the creative and investigative processes involved.

    Indeed, we the tax paying public are the ones who provide those funds. Surely, paying for it again is the biggest scam going.

    In short, the hard work is always done before publication, and never by the Publisher.

    What value does a publisher add, in the Net age?

    … for education and research, copyright laws are especially damaging

    Do ordinary citizens never wish to learn? Wouldn’t you like to fact check the LAT or the New Yorker even once?

    Are ordinary citizens ever likely to do some research? How about the citizens of Flint, Michigan? Is Erin Brockovich already a stranger to us?

    Education highlights the problems associated with the concept and function of copyright, because it is a simplified model compared to the publication of content where publishers had significant investment and financial risk prior to initial publication.

    However, many of us are not convinced that the stories we are spun on copyright hold water, in any case.

    Alexandra Elbakyan … has been compared to Robin Hood …

    Because she’s fighting a social injustice.

    Alexandra said: Sometimes I think it is not a good comparison, since what he was doing was illegal

    Sorry Alex, what you’re doing is illegal. I think what you mean is: It is, nevertheless, just.

    There’s the rub. Why isn’t copyright up for discussion? In fact, why do we never hear about it? Come to think of it, why do the leaked TPP, TTIP, etc. extend copyright yet again?

    The answer appears to be that copyright has become an intrinsic part of the Project to Roll Back the Enlightenment. Copyright has become so Establishment in the West that it is less questionable, and less questioned, than taxes – TAXES!

    … appreciate how [Alexandra Elbakyan] is shining a light on just how out-of-whack the system is of providing easy access to basic information that our universities and scholars need to advance science and research …

    This is, to me, a case of special pleading. On what basis do we apply a copyright exemption for scholars? Why should there be one rule in education, while the rest of us are only fed the content that publishers deem appropriate to be made public? This idea flies in the face of democracy.

    No-one, to the best of my knowledge, is providing a substantive – even a basic and adequate – justification for education exemption from copyright.

    I take my hat off to Alex; At least it’s a start.


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  • I’ve always wished that I was a poet, instead of an English teacher:

    Where The Mind Is Without Fear

    Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
    Where knowledge is free
    Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
    By narrow domestic walls
    Where words come out from the depth of truth
    Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
    Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
    Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
    Where the mind is led forward by thee
    Into ever-widening thought and action
    Into that heaven of freedom, my Father, let my country awake.

    A much greater mind than any of us.

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  • The model of peer reviewed publication, though it was a crowning achievement for the Royal Society over three hundred years ago, needs updating.

    Scientific publications do indeed create value that they have the right to sell, in the reviewing process.

    The papers themselves should be shared freely but be taken as of no proven value to any outside the field unless actively endorsed by experts from within the field. Scientific publications should sell authoratitive reviews of papers (that may yet fall short of being papers themselves by the fact of not bringing any new material of their own to public attention.)

    Scientific publications would therefore need to up the level of their review process, rather than simply allowing passage on the nod, the formal peer review published must needs be substantive, to earn its shilling, for the publishers and their reviewers.

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  • If I had the keys to the city, I’d probably make knowledge, all knowledge, accessible to everyone. The entire world’s knowledge uploaded to Wikipedia. I’m not a fan or profit at the expense of pain to someone else so I don’t particularly care if a multinational loses some money.

    Knowledge sets you free.

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