Kazakhstan, the early nineties. Alexandra Elbakyan, a little girl, bright and quick moving eyes, full cheeks, could have never imagined what she would grow up to do, starting on September 5th, 2011. Surely she could not know that, starting that day, she would become famous worldwide for being “the Robin Hood of science.” Back then, the word “hacker” would just be noise to her ears. She could not imagine what computers, those slow, gigantic boxes, would soon become.
Alexandra cannot predict her future even many years later, when, after university, computers and the Internet have developed incredibly fast and she knows many things about them. She has worked in computer security in Moscow, and not only does she now know what a “hacker” is, but she became one herself – one of the best ones. Even now, Alexandra cannot tell yet that since 2011, September 5th, she will be shaking up the world of scientific publishing. The plan, for now, is to become a scientist. Computers and the human mind appeal to her and she is interested in their interaction. She wants to see if it is possible to command machines not just through our hands, but directly through our thoughts.
She embarks on her ambitious research project. To start, Alexandra needs to find previous literature on the topic. She types the relevant keywords on search engines. Result: 70 papers. All different pieces of research on the human-computer interface. She needs to read those 70 articles. But when she tries to download them, something happens: they are not directly available to her because of a paywall mechanism. What is not paid by her university, she has to pay herself. Specifically: 32 dollars per article: a quick calculus reveals that the literature review alone, would cost her around 2000 dollars.
Alexandra, though, is practical. With her good-humoured attitude, she doesn’t get too upset. She simply has to aim her bright eyes on a solution, and she will find one. She figures out that many researchers, especially in developing countries, are in the same situation and many of them have already created some online forums to solve the problem. Online, researchers post requests for the papers they need and those who have access to them, download them and send them to the group. Forums are communities where scientists help each other to dodge a publishing system that seems to only help itself. Indeed, the general opinion in the research community is that papers should be distributed for free: publishers are not the creators of the contents and the actual authors, unlike writers, musicians or movie directors, do not receive more money from each copy sold. It really seems that there is a system where publishers are restricting access to scientific literature to get more profit. Alexandra realises she wants to bring a valuable contribution to these communities. She is not too irritated or idealistic about it, just practical. The system does not work, it does not operate in favour of researchers, so the world needs to find an efficient way around it.
Yet, not only is she a researcher, but she also is a good hacker. She finds ways to pirate the papers and starts to solve many requests. People are grateful, the activity becomes somehow addictive, like a game or a social network. After a while, with her usual practical and serene approach, Alexandra has an idea: why not develop a system which hacks documents automatically? The forum is enthusiastic. On September 5th, 2011, Sci-Hub is launched. Since then, 69% of published articles are provided for free, making researchers’ lives much easier.
However, Alexandra’s life changes too, but dramatically. All her efforts to help the academic community are rewarded with Elsevier, the world’s largest academic publisher, moving a 15 million injunction against her, and the court blocking Sci-Hub’s domain. She’s at crossroads: giving up, still being able to travel around the world, ensuring herself a more secure future? Or not giving up, risking bankruptcy and prison? Alexandra’s choice comes clear and loud: a few days after the website blockage, Sci-Hub is back online at a new domain accessible worldwide. The young hacker has no doubts: even behind a fence, she would be on the right side of the fence. In fact, she is convinced that science can be an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask. Alexandra, like a modern Antigone, brings to light the clash between what is just and what is legal. Elsevier fights against her, but researchers fight against Elsevier. Tiny detail: Elsevier, without researchers, is nothing. Alexandra is another proof that, when you do something genuinely good and generous for others, even if it’s stealing something from those in power, the entire world will be on your side.