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Fighting for Communism in Science: An Interview with Alexandra Elbakyan

Alexandra Elbakyan is a Kazakhstan-born, Russian-based computer programmer and scientific activist. A supporter of the open science movement and scientific communism, Elbakyan has been referred to as “Science’s Pirate Queen.” In 2011, Elbakyan founded the shadow library Sci-Hub, providing free access to millions of research articles without regard to copyright and paywalls. Today, Sci-Hub receives over 600,000 daily visitors from across the globe. In 2016, she was named to Nature’s 10, an annual list of the “people who mattered” in science.

Neil Sehgal: Since its founding, Sci-Hub has achieved massive success in making science more open, but it’s still illegal in all countries. How do you think Sci-Hub might achieve lasting political change?

Alexandra Elbakyan: From the very beginning, it’s been my dream that Sci-Hub would facilitate long-lasting changes in the copyright laws that have been used to stop the free exchange of information online.

We can have a discussion when copyright is used to stop the free distribution of movies and music, but if the law is against science and knowledge, there is nothing to discuss. Sci-Hub has made obvious that copyright prevents the development of science, free academic discussion on the Internet, and the free exchange of research knowledge in the form of articles and books. So what is the best thing we can do? It is to eliminate copyright law and allow the free distribution of knowledge on the Internet, and the free operation of websites like Sci-Hub. Sci-Hub’s main crime is that it allows the free reading of academic journals and books on the Internet. That shouldn’t be a crime in the first place.

I hoped that after Sci-Hub was widely known, there would be changes and everyone would understand why copyright law is wrong, but unfortunately that has not happened. I hoped the discussion would reach the United Nations as Sci-Hub is used in every country in the world and prohibiting people from accessing science is a human rights violation. That also did not happen. Instead, information about Sci-Hub has been suppressed in the media. Still, I want to achieve this in the future and my dream is for Sci-Hub to be accepted legally.

NS: In what ways has information about Sci-Hub been suppressed in the media?

AE: In modern society, science is a very important institution. So big problems in science, such as the problems with access that Sci-Hub uncovered, should gain attention of the major media. I expected the topic to be widely discussed on the TV in the US and Russia, I expected to see interviews with scientists stating explicitly that they are suffering from the current academic system…none of this happened! Sci-Hub has been ignored by the media in every country. In other words, the media coverage that Sci-Hub has now is tiny and incomparable to its actual impact.

NS: COVID-19 has brought about widespread changes in scientific research. Many journals have suspended their paywalls for virus-related research, but some scientists are worried about the distortion of funding priorities and a flood of substandard publications from unqualified researchers. What are your thoughts on the “covidization” of science?

AE: On Sci-Hub, papers related to coronavirus have been accessed 10 to 100 times more often than papers about other diseases in medical journals. Moreover, Sci-Hub is used not only by scientists, but also by many doctors in order to provide better treatment for their patients. Even before COVID-19, medical doctors were using Sci-Hub to access information on treatments for cancer and other diseases. Information can save lives!

For some reason this has not been considered by the courts: when publishers sue Sci-Hub somewhere it just gets banned. The website is illegal in the United States, and access to Sci-Hub has been blocked in France, Italy, Russia, and many other countries. Nobody is thinking they might be killing people with these decisions.

NS: In many fields within math and physics, self-archiving through open access repositories like arXiv before publication is a universal practice. And during COVID, self-archiving has now exploded in popularity. If self-archiving sustains its rapid spread, will Sci-Hub still be necessary?

AE: Self-archiving can only help to access the newest papers. What about accessing papers that are 10+ years old? To do research, people need to read not only the newest research, but all papers on their topics, sometimes those that were published back in the 19th century. Authors of these papers are long retired or dead, so they cannot self-archive. And for such publications, Sci-Hub will still be necessary.

Even if no one uses Sci-Hub, I will try to keep it as an archive and museum, where the true history and ideas of Sci-Hub will be available. You cannot trust the distorted description on Wikipedia. There needs to be some place with first-hand information about the project.

Last but not least, self-archiving is quite an old idea. The first project of this kind, arXiv, was created in 1991! The idea did not work: 20 years later, in 2011 most papers were still not available for free. Sci-Hub emerged to tackle the problem and Sci-Hub solved the problem! Now in 2021, you say that self-archiving Sci-Hub will not be necessary…it is a red herring, a wrong argument in itself.

NS: Sci-Hub is often spoken of in the same contexts as the shadow library Library Genesis, or LibGen. Despite the similarities, Library Genesis also offers free access to many non-scientific publications like books, novels, and magazines. Do you believe this is ethical?

AE: In science, authors receive nothing from the publishers, so Sci-Hub is not depriving authors of their reward. I have had discussions with people about how the music industry works, and they say the same: although musicians do receive some reward from recording companies, it is not much and the musicians there are also exploited. Copyright was intended to reward creative people, but in fact is used to exploit them.

In my view, there should be no copyright and no intellectual property for any type of content. It is easier to argue for science than for other types of content, because in science the authors receive nothing at all. But in my view, there shouldn’t be copyright on anything, ideas and information require freedom everywhere.

NS: You were born in Kazakhstan, three years before the Soviet Union collapsed. Did growing up in that environment inform how you approach Sci-Hub or science itself?

AE: Although the Soviet Union collapsed, the communist ideology remained strong, so I grew up in an environment where communism was still an inspiring idea. Hence, I always understood Sci-Hub as a communist project. The first version of Sci-Hub even had a small hammer and a sickle on the website, and if you hovered a mouse over it, text would pop up stating, “The communist society…is based upon common ownership of the means of production with free access to articles of consumption”

Knowledge today has become the private property of corporations such as the publisher Elsevier. These corporations are making a lot of money, while researchers are poor and exploited. Sci-Hub is against all of this. Knowledge belongs to everyone and all people should have equal access to it. Sci-Hub is fighting for communism in science.

NS: What do you say to those that say we need capitalist incentives to drive scientific innovation?

AE: Such reasoning implies that money is the only reason why people would do something, which is not true. Science can have its own value, because people want to understand how the world works. That is why they do science, not to make money.

NS: What do you make of the criticisms that a more communist Sci-Hub would have a more decentralized or collective leadership style, as opposed to a single person doing the programming, server configuration, communication, etc.?

AE: That criticism is nothing more than a bunch of ideological trash of red herrings. A leadership? Sci-Hub is not a political party, it is a website project created by Alexandra Elbakyan. In other words, Sci-Hub is a name for the work that I have done.

What is Sci-Hub? Sci-Hub is the name of a centralized technology that made 90% of all research journals freely available for anyone to read. If you now want to create something completely different, some decentralized technology, you should give it another name … ‘Sci-Net’ perhaps? Otherwise, it would be very dishonest to take the name from one thing and give it to another. Do I want to work on ‘Sci-Net’? Yes, but in the future. Right now, I have other work. Why did I create Sci-Hub in the way I did? Because it was the most straightforward thing to do. And it worked. Other approaches do not work, they are harder to implement and have issues. Sci-Hub has existed for almost 10 years and we have not seen any successful decentralized technology.

Do I want to expand the Sci-Hub team to include others? It is too late. Sci-Hub has already matured as a project, and become well-known: at this stage, you cannot simply take its name and replace the content (technology, people behind it, etc.). I don’t even want to change the website design. Sci-Hub should remain Sci-Hub.

Would you ask Albert Einstein why he worked out his E = mc2 equation alone and not in a team? Einstein also supported communism. That question is such demagoguery! Sci-Hub is just a shorthand name for what I do. Why do you want somebody else to do what I do? Perhaps because you do not want a woman being recognized for her work, and want somebody else to get the credit instead? And if you want somebody else working to make science free, perhaps you should ask them, not me?

NS: You spent one summer in the United States conducting research at Georgia Tech. Did you find any large differences between how science is practiced in the United States and in Russia?

AE: In the United States, science is understood as a job or a race with winners and losers, while in Russia science is much more relaxed and…free! I personally prefer the Russian style of doing science, without the pressure that researchers are under in the United States. Here, you have plenty of time to think over ideas. However, in the last few years, the Russian government has tried to implement various policies to make Russian science more similar to the US — researchers are now being pressured to publish and so on.

NS: You’ve been accused by the US Department of Justice of working for Russian intelligence. Do you think that the US government truly believes that you’re a Russian agent, or are they simply looking for a way to disparage Sci-Hub?

AE: This is quite a complicated thing. Why would the US government want to disparage me in the first place? Just because they want to support Elsevier? A copyright case would be enough.

The US government perceives it as a Russian attempt to influence US science and the US in general. When Sci-Hub gained widespread awareness in 2016, it garnered sympathy from many in the US who don’t understand why they have been prevented from accessing knowledge freely. They can suspect that Sci-Hub is a project created by the GRU or some other Russian intelligence service to strengthen Russian influence abroad, but it doesn’t matter. I was never hired by any Russian intelligence service. Sci-Hub is my own creative work and such accusations are trying to ascribe my work to somebody else. The funniest thing here is that there will always be some reason why a woman’s work will be rejected or not ascribed to her. For Sci-Hub the reason is communism, but it could have easily been for another reason.

NS: Around the same time that Donald Trump was removed from Twitter, Sci-Hub’s Twitter account was also removed without advance warning. Do you think it was just a coincidence that the removals came around the same time?

AE: Donald Trump’s account was suspended after Sci-Hub. After Sci-Hub’s Twitter was suspended, I spoke to journalists, articles were published, and the question was raised: “Why is Twitter suspending Sci-Hub when it was doing a good thing, but actual evil people such as Donald Trump are allowed to use Twitter without any trouble?” Shortly after that, Trump’s account was suspended.

Sci-Hub’s account existed on Twitter for many years. It is a legitimate question to ask why it was suspended now and wasn’t earlier. What exactly happened that led to the account’s sudden ban? Twitter has been silent and hasn’t given any comment. They’ve just pointed to their rules, but these rules existed for years.

I can only guess what happened. The ban of the account came shortly after a scandal in India. There was an upcoming ban of Sci-Hub in India and so I posted information on Sci-Hub’s Twitter about it. The Indian research community exploded, and as a result Sci-Hub was not banned on December 24 as Elsevier had planned. So perhaps they banned it to prevent Sci-Hub from getting such large support in the future?

Donald Trump is a suspected Russian spy too. Perhaps Twitter was taken over by the US government, and they are now removing everyone they suspect for connection with Russia? Again, I can only guess!

NS: What is the best way for Sci-Hub’s supporters to help advance its mission of knowledge to all?

AE: The best way is to give it legal and information support. Although it is a very interesting project that raises many important questions, the discussion around Sci-Hub has mostly been suppressed in the media. Some people put Sci-Hub in the “Acknowledgements” section of their research publications to demonstrate the importance of access to knowledge.

Others give legal support by talking about Sci-Hub with government officials and politicians. If you are a member of a political party, then raise the topic of making Sci-Hub accepted as a legal project (there is nothing illegal in reading academic journals) or join the Pirate Party. Sci-Hub also needs legal support in fighting lawsuits in every country against the major academic publishers.

*This interview has been edited for length and clarity.