The quiet scientific revolution … bypassing Elsevier paywalls

sci-hub vs ElsevierA rather frustrating reality for those not lucky enough to have access via a University account are the barriers that exist around many scientific papers. You might perhaps be looking into some topic and would be interested in reading a peer-reviewed paper, but then when you search, you find that it sits behind a paywall put up by a scientific journal publisher such as Elsevier that demands some absurd sum of money before you gain access.


Progress within the scientific community is generally published within a reputable peer-reviewed journal that specialises in the topic at hand, and one of the biggest publishers of such journals is Elsevier, they have about 2,000 journals and publish roughly 350,000 peer-reviewed articles per year. The  problem here is that they are a profit driven organisation and have been getting excessively greedy, to such an extent, that there now exists a rising tide of revolution.

To illustrate this point …

If you as an individual tried to access an article on-line then they are not looking for a few dollars, but instead are attempting to charge some outrageous sum. For example, I just went to Cell, randomly picked an article and attempted to access the pdf, to get it they want $31 and that only buys me access for 24 hours to just one article. If I was looking into some topic, I would be after, not just one paper, but potentially hundreds.

It should also be worth remembering that the papers submitted for publication are not paid for or sponsored by Elsevier in any way. As for the peer-review, that is also done on a voluntary basis, nobody gets paid to do that. The only thing they bring to the table is simply the reputation that a specific journal has.

Open Access

We have seen the rise of the open access movement, and now often grants come with clauses that quite rightly mandate open access, but with a deep desire for career development, many in some communities are forced to go for the high-impact / high-reputation journals. However, we now have reached a point at which the rise of the Internet has brought the ability to greatly disrupt Elsevier’s ability to hold access to publicly funded knowledge to ransom.

The Rebels – Sci-Hub

Enter stage left … Sci-Hub … a site that soaks up all the papers out there that normally lurk behind paywalls and then offers them to anybody who needs access for free. They now hold over 48 million.

Now what about that paper I was attempting to access on Cell … yes officially it can indeed be mine (for 24 hours) for the princely sum of $31 … or I can simply key the title into and boom … there it is 100% free.

Ah but Elsevier are not exactly happy-bunnies about all this

Well yes, it is all disrupting their business model so they do indeed have some rather strong objections. But is a Russian website, so there is not much they can actually do. Elsevier had their day in court and won the right to have domain names ceased, but that is quite honestly a pointless token gesture because of course a new domain soon pops up.

They are really not making friends with anybody (except perhaps the lawyers who charge them big fees to go to court) …

Meanwhile, Elsevier, the market leader in S&T publishing, was in the headlines throughout 2015 as open access advocates continue to stage protests against the company and its pay walled business model. In September, all six editors and the entire editorial board of the linguistics journal Lingua resigned because the publisher would not take steps to make the journal completely open access.

Elsevier defended its position by pointing to range of open access options available at Lingua and committed to moving forward under a new team.

The publisher had already drawn the ire of open access advocates in June by filing lawsuits against the websites Libgen and SciHub, which upload PDFs of copyright protected articles for free.

Even an attempt at altruism brought Elsevier grief, as in September when it donated 45 free ScienceDirect accounts to Wikipedia editors and open access crusaders balked that it could turn Wiki’s science articles into a “front page” for Elsevier’s paid content.

Alexandra Elbakyan & Sci-Hub

Where did Sci-hub spring from?

The founder of the site, Alexandra Elbakyan, wrote a letter to the Judge in the Elsevier case, and explained it all…

I am the main operator of website mentioned in the case. That is true that via website anyone can download, absolutely for free, a copy of research paper published by Elsevier (Elsevier asks for 32 USD for each download).

I would like to clarify the reasons behind website. When I was a student in Kazakhstan university, I did not have access to any research papers. These papers I needed for my research project. Payment of 32 dollars 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. Later I found there are lots and lots of researchers (not even students, but university researchers) just like me, especially in developing countries. They created online communities (forums) to solve this problem. I was an active participant in one of such communities in Russia. Here anyone who needs research paper, but cannot pay for it, could place a request and other members who can obtain the paper will send it for free by email. I could obtain any paper by pirating it, so I solved many requests and people always were very grateful for my help. After that, I created website that simply makes this process automatic and the website immediately became popular.

That is true that website collects donations, however we do not pressure anyone to send them. Elsevier, in contrast, operates by racket: if you do not send money, you will not read any papers. On my website, any person can read as many papers as they want for free, and sending donations is their free will. Why Elsevier cannot work like this, I wonder?

I would also like to mention that Elsevier is not a creator of these papers. All papers on their website are written by researchers, and researchers do not receive money from what Elsevier collects. That is very different from music or movie industry, where creators receive money from each copy sold. But economics of research papers is very different. Authors of these papers do not receive money. Why would they send their work to Elsevier then? They feel pressured to do this, because Elsevier is an owner of so-called “high-impact” journals. If a researcher wants to be recognized, make a career – he or she needs to have publications in such journals.

What I written here is not just my opinion – this topic is widely discussed in research community. For example, a researcher John Willinsky wrote a book named “The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship” where he discusses this problem. The general opinion in research community is that research papers should be distributed for free (open access}, not sold. And practices of such companies like Elsevier are unacceptable, because they limit distribution of knowledge. In 2012, there was an “Elsevier boycott” organized by a prominent mathematician Timothy Gowers to battle such practices:

“The Cost of Knowledge is a protest by academics against the business practices of academic journal publisher Elsevier. Among the reasons for the protests are a call for lower prices for journals and to promote increased open access to information. The main work of the project is to ask researchers to sign a statement committing not to support Elsevier journals by publishing, performing peer review, or providing editorial services for these journals.”

I would like to also mention that we never received any complaints from authors or researchers, only Elsevier is complaining about free distribution of knowledge on sci-hub.erg website.

Best regards,
Alexandra Elbakyan,
the sci-hub.erg operator

Basically Elsevier blew it

Elsevier simply got too greedy and now there is a rising tide of rebellion. Not only have more than 15,000 researchers pledged to boycott them, but 31 editorial board members from the Elsevier journal Lingua, quit and set up their own open-access journal, Glossa.

Many academics choking on their monopoly now also happily donate access keys to Sci-Hub so that the Elsevier paywall can be rapidly bypassed in an automated manner.

If Elsevier truly believe that they can turn the clock back and re-instate their monopoly, then they are being delusional, because it is inevitable that they will face an increasing tide of open rebellion and rapidly shrinking revenues. They might indeed win the argument legally, but when your excessive profiteering alienates the hearts and minds of both your unpaid contributors, editors, peer-reviewers, and consumers, then they will happily and willingly contribute to your inevitable downfall.

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