Alexandra Elbakyan

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.

Silvia Lazzaris

Socrates

Xanthippe was not particularly happy about her husband’s lack of interest in wealth and power. He spent his days wandering through the streets, asking questions to anyone he encountered. The problem was that her husband, Socrates, was devoted to something very specific: knowing the truth. He believed, or so he claimed, that he never knew enough. “I know that I know nothing“, he used to say. Socrates was in fact aware that, behind what we think we know, some influences are always hidden. He knew we constantly tell ourselves many truths in order to give some reasons for our actions. Tradition, community, family, friends: we take for granted the values that regulate our relationships, and it is difficult to peel away those wrapping forces that affect our behaviour. It is difficult to strip ourselves of those vague meanings that define us. For example, if we are asked some explanations, we often say: ‘I did it in this way because this is right’. We use words such as right, fair, true, just. But who is right? What is justice? And what ensures us that justice is the thing that we are told it is? These were the sort of philosophical questions that Socrates would ask. And answering Socrates’ questions was hard. Indeed, he took his mission very seriously: the politicians in Athens were deeply corrupted. Some healing was necessary. And beyond his declared ignorance, Socrates was convinced that Athenian misgovernment was the aftermath of unawareness, inattention and lack of inquiry. He wanted to increase understanding, especially among the youth. His mission was then to inquire the human soul, making hypotheses and discussing certainties.

This habit to scrutinise the souls and discover the true motives of human behaviour won him many dislikes. He started to acknowledge, “with regret and with some apprehension“, that he was making enemies. Yet, he insisted. Young people would gather around him, his pupils would start to doubt the traditional beliefs. This was a threat to the political class and to the values that dominated society. Socrates, the source of the threat, had to be removed from the Polis as soon as possible. So it was that in 399 bc he was accused publicly by the tragic poet Meleto, the democratic politician Anito, and the orator Licone. The charges were two: corruption of the youth and rejection of the traditional gods of the Polis. However, even those who accused him, advised him to flee. After all, what they merely cared about was to ensure that their government, founded on questionable customes, was not opposed. Socrates had easy chances to get away with it: even more, his friend Critone had already organised everything to let him escape. Yet, Socrates decided to go through the trial, refusing to acknowledge any guilt. He defended himself against the charges. The startled and worried prosecution sentenced him guilty, with three hundred and sixty out of five hundred votes.

Socrates’ punishment worked in this way: he would receive a notification about when he had to commit suicide. Capital punishment at that time in Athens consisted of a voluntary act, done to relieve the community of one’s negative influence. So it spoke Socrates’ sentence: a month later, he would have to poison himself with hemlock. Socrates accepted the sentence with an unabashed attitude: in fact, according to him, criticising unjust laws did not authorise anyone to break them. In the face of unjust laws, from Socrates’ perspective, we must fight to change them. If we fail, we only need to submit to the laws in order to show their injustice. Indeed, when we fight against injustice, we cannot pull back to our personal advantage or disadvantage. Socrates used to say that serious men do not spend time “calculating the probability of life and death, instead of thinking about whether they have behaved as good or bad men”. Socrates, agreeing to be silenced forever, gave a lecture to his accusers and to all those who think they can get rid of a voice by breaking it. Socrates showed that by remaining faithful to a moral mission, by becoming a role model, there is no silencing that can hold. The accusers believed they were getting rid of Socrates by removing his body and his voice. But they were wrong: his courage and authority brought their mediocrity and malice to light. So much that many people were left shocked by his conviction. And it was thanks to the words of those shocked individuals, among whom Plato, that the dreaded revolutions of politics and morals began and developed.

Silvia Lazzaris