Economy, Sci & Tech

Science Student Behind Pirate Site for Academic Papers

Science Student Behind Pirate Site for Academic PapersScience Student Behind Pirate Site for Academic Papers

Beyond being the founder of Sci-Hub, the world’s largest pirate site for academic papers, and risking arrest as a result, Alexandra Elbakyan is a typical science graduate student: idealistic, hard-working and relatively poor.

In 1988, when Elbakyan was born in Kazakhstan, the Soviet Union was just beginning to crumble. Books about dinosaurs and evolution fascinated her early on, Science Magazine reported.

“I also remember reading Soviet science books that provided scientific explanations for miraculous events thought previously to be produced by gods or magic,” she says.

Elbakyan was hooked.

At university in the Kazakh capital, she discovered a knack for computer hacking. It appealed to her because “unlike higher programming languages that are created by people and are volatile”, making and breaking computer security systems require a deeper knowledge of mathematics and the primitive “assembly language” that computers use to move information.

Like so many of Kazakhstan’s brightest, Elbakyan left the country to pursue her dreams. First she worked in Moscow in computer security for a year and then she used the earnings to enter the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010, where she joined a brain-computer interface project.

She was lured by the possibility that such an interface could one day translate the thought content from one mind and upload it to another. But the work fell short of her dreams.

“The lab activity was spiritless,” she says. “There was no feeling of pursuing a higher goal.”

Elbakyan did find a community of like-minded researchers in trans-humanism, a lofty field that encompasses not just neuroscience and computer technology but also philosophy and even speculative fiction about the future of humanity.

The scientific nerd discovered a trans-humanism conference in the United States and set her heart on attending, but she struggled to get a US visa. She was rejected the first time and only barely made it to the conference.

With the remainder of her summer visa, she did a research internship at Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta.

When she got back to Kazakhstan, frustration with the barriers that scientists face would soon lead her to create Sci-Hub—an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.

Publisher paywalls are the bane of scientists and students in Kazakhstan, she says, and the existing solution was cumbersome: Post a request on Twitter to #IcanhazPDF with your email address.

Eventually, a generous researcher at some university with access to the journal will send you the paper.

What was needed, she decided, was a system that allowed that paper to be shared—with absolutely everyone. She had the computer skills—and contacts with other pirate websites—to make that happen, and so Sci-Hub was born.

Elbakyan sees the site as a natural extension of her dream of helping humans share good ideas.

“Journal paywalls are an example of something that works in the reverse direction,” she says, “making communication less open and efficient.”

Running a pirate site and being sued for what is likely to be millions of dollars in damages has not stopped Elbakyan from pursuing an academic career. Her neuroscience research is on hold, but she has enrolled in a history of science master’s program at a “small private university” in an undisclosed location. Appropriately enough, her thesis focuses on scientific communication.

“I perceive Sci-Hub as a practical side of my research,” she says.