Making Knowledge Free Can Cost You Your Freedom

(Bloomberg View) -- Seven years ago, a Kazakhstani graduate student named Alexandra Elbakyan started a website with a seemingly innocuous goal: Make most of the world’s research freely available to anyone with internet access. It’s a sad reflection on the state of scientific publishing that she is now a fugitive hiding in Russia.

Most people agree that if the public funds scientific research, it should also have free access to the results. This is more than just a matter of fairness: The unhindered flow of knowledge is crucial to the technological innovation that helps drive economic growth.

But that’s not how scientific publishing works. A small group of companies, such as Elsevier and Springer, controls many of the major journals in which researchers present their findings -- and owns the copyrights on about half of all articles being published. This allows them to charge academic institutions and government laboratories exorbitant sums for access, at profit margins that typically exceed 30 percent. It also means that much of the world’s most cutting-edge knowledge is hidden behind very high paywalls.  (Disclosure: I'm a columnist for the journal Nature Physics and a former editor of the journal Nature, both of which are owned by Springer.) 

Naturally, scientists don’t like this. They have been trying for decades to erode the publishers’ control through the Open Access movement. Progress has been slow, but nearly half of all new papers are now published in Open Access journals, and the major funding agencies of the European Union and many European nations are starting to require it. Last month, more than 200 German universities refused to renew their contract with Elsevier, and are still in negotiations over fees.

The universities’ position has strengthened in part because much of Elsevier’s content is now available for free online, to anyone who knows where to look. And for that, they have Alexandra Elbakyan to thank. Elbakyan’s website, known as Sci-Hub, relies on the cooperation of a large network of academics, who share their passwords to enable her to access and archive articles. Millions of people around the globe, including many scientists, use the website routinely.

The publishers have responded with legal action. Last year, Elsevier won $15 million in damages for copyright infringement. More recently, a Virginia court awarded the American Chemical Society $4.8 million and ordered internet search engines, web hosting sites and service providers to stop facilitating Sci-Hub activities.

Elbakyan has persevered, repeatedly moving to new domains as existing one get shut down. In a recent interview, she invoked Article 27 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights, explaining that her motivation is to enable everyone to benefit from scientific knowledge. Many people keep helping her, posting information that allows Sci-Hub to be accessed from other locations. 

The publishers’ position is looking increasingly untenable. Illegal as it may be, Sci-Hub sheds light on the flaws of a system in which private companies sell the results of research back to the very public that paid for it. The sensible solution is to enact legislation guaranteeing the free availability of publicly funded research. This has already happened in many nations, and could happen soon in the U.S. through a bill known as the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research Act of 2017. Elbakyan suggests going further, eliminating copyright for all research content.

The world owes Elbakyan a debt for taking a courageous step that has furthered the Open Access movement and hampered publishers’ ability to hold scientific knowledge hostage. For this, she has been rewarded with confinement to Russia, where she is residing for fear of arrest and extradition to the U.S. Let’s hope that changes soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Mark Buchanan, a physicist and science writer, is the author of the book "Forecast: What Physics, Meteorology and the Natural Sciences Can Teach Us About Economics."

To contact the author of this story: Mark Buchanan at

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