Can anyone actually own knowledge? That’s the question at the heart of a legal battle between some of the world’s largest academic publishers and a Russian neuroscientist named Alexandra Elbakyan, who operates a website allowing users to access millions of research papers for free. According to Elbakyan, the publishers owning these papers are restricting the spread of knowledge by charging people to read them, although a lawsuit filed by Elsevier may result in her being ordered to pay millions of dollars in damages.
Fortunately for Elbakyan, Elsevier’s challenge is being raised in a New York district court, and since she lives in Russia and doesn’t have any assets in the U.S., it’s unlikely she’ll actually be forced to pay up. That’s particularly handy for her given the fact that the court is expected to rule against her, having already adjudged her site to be in violation of U.S. copyright laws last October.
The website, called Sci-Hub, bypasses the paywalls around academic papers using access keys provided by researchers from universities around the world with subscriptions to the publishers’ content. Having downloaded more than 48 million papers to its database, the site now allows users to obtain this content for free.
Elbakyan says she launched the website after becoming frustrated at not being able to access research material without paying, and argues that the publishers are themselves acting illegally by charging for these papers. Her basis for this claim resides in Article 27 of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which states that “everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”
However, academic publishers such as Elsevier say that monetizing these papers brings in vital funding for ongoing academic research, enabling authors and scholarly societies to obtain vital revenue. In retort, Elbakyan says that most study authors don’t actually receive royalties for the papers they publish, which is why Sci-Hub should not be compared to illegal music and video-sharing websites.
Regardless, New York district court judge Robert Sweet has stated that Elbakyan’s site “disserves the public interest,” and could order her to pay up to $150,000 for each paper she has pirated. In spite of this, she says she is “definitely not going to stop spreading the knowledge.”