The Cable

The World’s Largest Free Scientific Resource Is Now Blocked in Russia

A feud within Russia's scientific community could have major repercussions.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looks through a microscope during a visit to the Kurchatov scientific research institute in Moscow on September 30, 2009. Medvedev made a working visit to the research center.                 AFP PHOTO / POOL / MAXIM SHIPENKOV (Photo credit should read MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev looks through a microscope during a visit to the Kurchatov scientific research institute in Moscow on September 30, 2009. Medvedev made a working visit to the research center. AFP PHOTO / POOL / MAXIM SHIPENKOV (Photo credit should read MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images)

The founder of the world’s largest resource for accessing free scientific research has blocked access to the site in Russia because of a dispute with scientists there.

Sci-Hub, the website that bypasses strict and expensive paywalls and provides more than 64 million academic papers for direct download, announced Tuesday that it would be blocking its website to users in Russia. In a letter posted on Sci-Hub’s homepage, Alexandra Elbakyan, the website’s founder, said that she was cutting off the country’s access because of “persecution” that she was facing from what she called Russia’s “liberal opposition.”

“The reasons for this were extremely inadequate, offensive behavior of Russian scientists towards the creator of the service,” states Elbakyan in the letter. “These people enjoy widespread support, some even hold high posts in the Russian Academy of Sciences.”

The termination of service to Russia appears to be part of long standing feud within the Russian scientific community between Elbakyan and a group of Russian scientists that are critical of her project aimed at upending the business side of the academic system. In the letter, Elbakyan specifically mentions a recent announcement by a group of scientists from Mexico and Russia, including one member of the prestigious Russian Academy of Sciences, to name a newly discovered parasitic insect after her.

Elbakyan’s standoff with the scientists she refers to as the “liberal opposition” dates back to 2015 when she supported the Russian Ministry of Justice in its decision to list the Dynasty Foundation, Russia’s only private funder of scientific research, as a “foreign agent.” Her support followed the passage of a law in 2012 that made all non-government organizations that receive foreign funding and are engaged in political work to register.

The law has been heavily criticized in the West as a way to silence dissenting viewpoints, with Human Rights Watch describing it as a way for the Kremlin “to stigmatize criticism or alternative views of government policy as disloyal, foreign-sponsored, or even traitorous.”

Rather than deal with the stigma of being labelled a “foreign agent,” the Dynasty Foundation shut down. But the incident caused a rift within the Russian scientific community, with some believing that the organization should not have been targeted. Elbakyan strongly backed the Russian government’s position in the decision and remained extremely critical of the Dynasty Foundation, saying that it supported primarily liberal scientists and is engaged in political activities.

In Sci-Hub’s discussion group on the Russian social media platform VK, Elbakyan said in a post she was a supporter of a strong Russian state that “can resist the West” and then later banned all members of the group who supported the Dynasty Foundation’s work.

Many people thought that the scientific battle for access was over because of Sci-Hub’s prevalence,” Daniel Himmelstein, a data scientist at the University of Pennsylvania who has studied Sci-Hub online influence, told Foreign Policy. “But this episode in Russia shows that it’s also a very fragile and centralized service.”

In its six years of existence, Sci-Hub has grown dramatically. A recent academic study found that Sci-Hub contains 68.9 percent of all academic research and makes 85.2 percent of all paper originally published behind an academic paywall available for free. Elbakyan has said that most paper downloads are coming from China, India, Russia, Brazil, and Iran, with downloads from the United States on the rise.

Since launching Sci-Hub in 2011, Elbakyan — a native of Kazakhstan — has been a controversial figure. Elbakyan’s radical mission to provide free access to nearly every scientific paper ever published to anyone who wants it has made her a hero to some in the scientific community who see her work as upending the current system that restricts the majority of academic work behind expensive paywalls that many researchers and institutions can’t afford.

Due to her efforts, Elbakyan was dubbed “the Robin Hood of science” and named one of the “10 people who mattered” in 2016 by the British science magazine Nature. Her brash attitude and strong convictions have also has earned her comparisons with Aaron Swartz, a former Massachusetts Institute of Technology student who also championed the cause that academic papers should be freely available before being charged with hacking. Faced with federal criminal prosecution, he committed suicide in 2013.

Sci-Hub has also drawn the ire of publishers. On June 21, a New York district court awarded Elsevier, one of the world’s largest scientific publishers, $15 million in damages for copyright infringement. On September 5, the American Chemical Society, a leading source of academic publications in the field of chemistry, called for a default judgment of $4.8 million against Sci-Hub, also for alleged copyright infringement after Elbakyan failed to appear in the U.S. court for proceedings.

In her letter posted on Tuesday, Elbakyan told Russian scientists who rely on Sci-Hub for their research that they can still access the site using VPN services or a TOR browser, which can allow users to get around country restrictions. Speaking to the Russian news site Meduza after the decision to block access, Elbakyan said that banning Sci-Hub was meant as a “symbolic gesture” but reiterated that her project deserves more respect from Russia’s scientists.

“I would like to hear excuses and publish materials that refute the lies that were spread about me,” Elbakyan said, “as well as official recognition of the importance of projects like Sci-Hub.”

Photo credit: MAXIM SHIPENKOV/AFP/Getty Images 

Reid Standish is an Alfa fellow and Foreign Policy’s special correspondent covering Russia and Eurasia. He was formerly an associate editor. Twitter: @reidstan

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