Datum: 10.08.2022

Kazakh Alexandra Elbakyan has built Sci-Hub, the largest open knowledge platform in history

While academics around the world celebrate her, she has to go into hiding. This is her story

Author: Hannes Grassegger


There she is, standing in front of the "Lenin", the massive icebreaker. In a blue winter coat with chemical formulae printed on it, she is standing wide-legged and unperturbed, defying the arctic wind that swirls the snow around her hood. And when a menacingly slow hammering sounds, as if it were the heartbeat of a steel monster, I suspect that this is her choreography, that she has planned everything precisely: the meeting point here in the harbour in front of the steel ice smasher and from there the way to her temporary home in Murmansk, the command centre of the global revolution that she controls.

Photo: Irina Shkoda

Around the world, Alexandra Elbakyan's opponents - billionaire publishers - have sent the courts after her. They accuse her of theft. But for Elbakyan, the real thieves are her opponents, because they have robbed humanity of free access to science.

In the daily podcast "Apropos", Hannes Grassegger tells of his encounter with Alexandra Elbakyan.

To liberate research, she pulled off a gigantic hack in which she captured millions of scientific papers - and made them available to the world free of charge. Probably every scientist, amateur researcher and science journalist has used Elbakyan's website Sci-Hub.

An estimated eighty per cent of all research papers ever published are freely accessible here. Almost ninety million articles. The vast majority stolen, copied for the great common purpose of advancing the world through science. Behind Sci-Hub is also the original idea of a free internet, a vision that the founders of Facebook and Google also once embraced.

All those men from Silicon Valley promised democratisation, open access and a new age of sharing everything with everyone. Most of them betrayed these goals and put profit above any idea of freedom. Only Elbakyan has truly delivered, giving billions of people unlimited access to the state of research. To those who use Sci-Hub, Elbakyan is a hero. But in the public eye, hardly anyone knows the woman from Kazakhstan.

When the last bit of brightness from the sparse winter sun has disappeared, Elbakyan walks to a grey-brown, crumbling prefabricated building and through a narrow stairwell painted bright green to the seventh floor, where she opens two heavy, padded doors in a row.

Elbakyan opens a silver-grey notebook with a pink smiley stuck on its lid. With this laptop she cracks the paywalls of the big science publishers.

The exterior of the house is deceptive; inside, the flat turns out to be a modern studio. In front of one wall is a noble, dark green velvet sofa, on a coffee table lies a set of tarot cards next to a science book, on a clothes rail hang a few of the colourfully printed sweatshirts she often wears during Youtube talks. There is a wide view of the water from the window front. To the left, the lights of the harbour twinkle, and to the right, a huge white sculpture stands out against the polar night, the city's landmark: Alyosha, the Lone Warrior. An enormous Soviet sculpture made of the finest concrete.

Elbakyan sits down and opens a silver-grey notebook with a pink smiley face with twisted eyes and a handful of neon yellow stars stuck on its lid. With this laptop she cracks the paywalls, the online payment barriers of the big scientific publishers, and copies the expensive research papers unnoticed.

On this computer she calculates the constellation of stars that guide many of her decisions and communicates with her hundreds of thousands of followers on social media, to whom she speaks in sometimes plaintive, sometimes triumphant posts. Like recently, when she complained in a tweet that a certain Greta Thunberg had been nominated for the Nobel Prize, but that she herself had not even been mentioned.

Elbakyan, the lone campaigner, seems to suffer from the fact that she has so far been denied the public recognition that she believes she deserves. She decided to change this and therefore agreed to meet a Western journalist for the first time. She had refused all previous requests, partly out of caution, as she says: "Every time a journalist asks, I always think it's an agent coming to kill me."

The last person to attempt something similar to her is dead: Aaron Swartz, an American student, took his own life in 2013 after being caught downloading 4.8 million technical papers from a science database. For Elbakyan, his death was a warning sign. She never believed in suicide, she says. Of course, publishers don't kill anyone. But if anyone is on their hit list, it's Elbakyan. She has captured almost twenty times the amount of data. And put it online.

For more than a year, she has been constantly changing flats, always keeping her exact whereabouts secret. Before she came to Murmansk, she had been in Sochi, Yalta, Sevastopol, Novosibirsk, Simferopol, Krasnoyarsk, Kazan, Perm and Tver, always by train, for fear of flying. She cannot go abroad, she would probably be extradited there. At least nineteen million dollars in damages are pending, she no longer counts.

She particularly likes Murmansk. With about 300,000 inhabitants, it is the largest city north of the Arctic Circle, where Russia borders on Finland and Norway. The name is probably derived from murman, which means "edge of the world" in the language of the Sámi, the indigenous inhabitants of this region.

She plans to stay here longer than in the places before; this is her birthday present to herself. She spent her thirty-third birthday, 6 November, here, alone. As a second gift, she treated herself to a trip, as she shows us in a photo: Elbakyan, smiling, in front of northern lights.

Elbakyan would have had to pay two billion francs for all the publications she captured - for one-time, time-limited access.

If you click on sci-hub.se, you look at a broken wall, formulas behind it. A black raven, in whose plumage a starry sky is recognisable, holds a key in its beak; a search field opens below it. If you enter the link to a scientific article, or its PMID or DOI number, and then click on the button with the key, you will almost certainly get it. It's all quick, easy and, above all, free - a nightmare for the publishers with their elaborate paywalls.

But they are increasing the pressure. Elbakyan would have had to pay at least two billion francs for all the publications she captured - for one-time, time-limited access. Lawsuits, blockings, investigations for alleged espionage; all this is burdensome, says Elbakyan. But what hits her hardest is the claim that Sci-Hub is not hers. Nothing drives her into a rage like the assumption that she couldn't have set up Sci-Hub on her own, couldn't have programmed it on her own and run it for years.

How it all began with Sci-Hub

The unbelievable story of how a young researcher built the largest open science library in history on the Internet begins in Almaty, which was called Alma-Ata in Soviet times and was the capital of Kazakhstan. Westerners know Almaty mainly from the news about street fights and the brutal intervention of the police with hundreds of deaths.

And Kazakhstan is probably only known to many because of the Borat films by satirist Sacha Baron Cohen, who portrayed it as a bizarre pastoral state. The story of Alexandra Elbakyan, who grew up not among sheep but with books and computers, shows how wrong this image is.

She was born in 1988. She has no brothers or sisters. She does not know her father, she got her Armenian surname from her mother. She grew up in a household without men, together with two generations of Soviet women engineers: her grandmother, a surveyor in the mining industry, and her mother, a systems developer specialising in networked computer systems.

The family did not put down roots in Almaty. The mother now lives in the USA, Elbakyan says, and her two best school friends are also no longer in the country. When asked about Almaty, she talks about her cat Vaska, the turtle Sonya she had as a child, and that there was a lake near the flat.

In kindergarten, Elbakyan became interested in computers. In an eighty-four-page autobiography that Elbakyan posted online in Russian in 2018, she recalls her favourite children's book, the "Encyclopaedia of Professor Fortran", famous in the Soviet Union, about little Alyosha's adventures in a computer city full of algorithms. The love of computers was connected to Elbakyan's mother, who had to start from scratch after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and worked her way up from caretaker to software developer.

Elbakyan started coding when she was twelve. She made her first hack at fourteen using a protocol she had read about in a magazine. From then on, she could use the then-expensive dial-up internet for free. When the teenager reported the vulnerability to the Internet providers, she hoped for a reward. Instead, she was hounded by their forum, she says. That taught her a lesson.

Her mother put Alexandra Elbakyan in a grammar school with a mathematics focus. "The first time I saw Sasha (Russian call sign for "Alexandra", editor's note), she was wearing jeans and a hoodie with a polar bear on it instead of the school uniform," recalls a school friend who now works as a doctor. The two were outsiders. "The others called us nerds. They didn't like us because we learned too much. And sometimes we skipped school together." To pursue their common hobby: Neuroscience.

As a teenager, Alexandra Elbakyan devoured neuroscience blogs and literature on brain research. Because specialist books on neuroscience were expensive, she learned to crack the payment barriers for e-books and wrote a programme that combined the captured PDFs into a book. The English she had acquired while programming helped her with her reading. She also read about connections between the human brain and computers, and about attempts to decode the brain's electromagnetic fields. All this fascinated her very much.

The Perfect Soviet Man

The man-machine connection is a field of science with a special tradition in the former Soviet Union. In the late 1950s, when the Soviet Union launched the first satellite into space before the Americans and soon after the first living creature into orbit, the dog Laika, and when it looked as if the USSR was becoming an unassailable techno-superpower, some Russian scientists tried to develop technologies for thought transmission.

The aim was to expand the capabilities of the workforce - and to control it. Ultimately, the goal was to create the perfect Soviet man. The Soviet Union almost invented the internet at that time. In 1959, when the difficulty of using analogue bureaucracy to reasonably control the emerging planned economy began to show, the highly decorated researcher Anatoly Kitov sent a letter to the state leader Khrushchev. In it was an innovative proposal for a new kind of computer network that would make a scientific planned economy possible by means of linked information streams.

But the idea of a Soviet internet disappeared in the mills of the party bureaucracy. Had it been implemented, we might all be living in cybercommunism today.

Alexandra Elbakyan began to dream a few decades later: If it were possible to connect a brain to a computer, would it also be possible to link two brains by means of computers and thus see through the eyes of another being? Would this make it possible to develop a kind of global brain in the distant future, a new sphere of consciousness, as predicted by the Russian researcher Vladimir Vernadsky or the Catholic theologian Teilhard de Chardin in the early 20th century: the noosphere? Elbakyan decided that she would devote her life to the study of neural networks.

So she organised herself an EEG machine and tested her friend's brain waves at home. That's how she came up with the topic of her bachelor's thesis in information security in 2009: telepathic logins, i.e. brainwaves instead of fingerprints or passwords. The topic linked her greatest interest - the fusion of nervous systems - with her greatest talent: cracking passwords.

But during her research, Elbakyan suddenly faced a problem: there was research on the topic, but only behind the paywall. She had found numerous articles on Google Scholar (a search engine for scientific literature). But when she clicked on it, almost every article cost around thirty francs. She needed dozens of them to read in. A fortune for a student in an emerging country like Kazakhstan, where the monthly income even in the capital is 500 francs. Elbakyan was shocked. "I was used to the fact that you could always find a way to get something for free on the net." Therein lay the promise of the digital world she had grown up in: free access to information.

How was she now going to get her diploma? "I panicked," she writes in her biography. So she resorted to her tried and tested remedy: she cracked the paywalls. Elbakyan used the internet to get logins to libraries at foreign universities, whose digital libraries contained the research articles she needed.

Without realising it, she had discovered her future life's work: to give everyone access to knowledge, the solution to one of the biggest problems in science. Because the payment barriers are not just about specialist articles on neuroscience. It is also about the latest research on corona viruses or cancer. Every year, almost ten million people die of cancer, but only a good quarter of the research is accessible without a paywall, estimates Kamila Markram, co-founder of the Lausanne-based open access publishing association Frontiers.

Once halfway around the world

In 2009, after passing her bachelor's degree, Elbakyan, then twenty-one years old, decided to do a PhD in neuroengineering, if possible in the USA. Her mother was thrilled. She herself had had big dreams as a child, but Elbakyan's grandmother held her back then. Now, however, she would be able to make it possible for her daughter, because in the meantime her mother was earning good money.

The search for a doctoral position turned into a one-and-a-half-year odyssey for Alexandra Elbakyan. She tried in Italy, in Moscow and at a laboratory in Freiburg, Germany. From there, she managed to get invited to a conference in Tucson, Arizona, that was in 2010.

In Arizona, she was invited to Harvard to lecture on her idea of a networked consciousness. Her visa allowed the young Kazakh to spend an entire summer in the USA. She visited numerous laboratories and universities, but they always wanted to hire her as a programmer, never as a neuroengineer. After months of searching in vain, one day she sat alone on the bench of a bus stop in Los Angeles and cried. The USA depressed her. This was not what she had hoped for.

So she returned home to Almaty, living at home while her mother pressured her to finally find a job. Elbakyan worked as a programmer, and in the evenings she hung around on science forums. One day she made a discovery: "When I was browsing through the active threads, I saw a strange topic. It had so many comments that it stretched over dozens of pages." The posts always read the same: "Help me find this article," it said, along with a link to an article behind a paywall.

For three days, she locked herself in her old childhood bedroom with a discarded laptop and programmed an internet portal she called "Sci-Hub".

Exactly the problem she knew from her bachelor's thesis. Elbakyan began to make herself useful. She logged into university accounts with access to databases using foreign passwords and downloaded essays for users of the forum. Hundreds of times. Then she had an idea: couldn't this be automated?

For three days, she locked herself in her old childhood room with a discarded laptop from her mother and programmed an internet portal. "Sci-Hub" she called her site, "Sci" stands for "Science", "Hub" for "Centre" - the centre of science. When she was finished, she placed a hammer and sickle next to the search box. She hadn't read Karl Marx, but Sci-Hub is communist. That was crystal clear to her.

On 5 September 2011, Sci-Hub was born. Soon Elbakyan posted a link to Sci-Hub for the first time in the MolBiol forum - where mainly molecular biology issues are discussed in Russian. To publicise her service, she responded to forum requests not only with the papers she wanted, but also with a link to Sci-Hub. She sent a good seven hundred messages this way.

Then came the breakthrough: word of Sci-Hub spread, new users joined, showering her with thank-you emails. "People were happy!" writes Elbakyan in her biography. Soon her system was downloading around forty publications an hour from university libraries. One paper every minute and a half.

Shadow libraries

Of course, Elbakyan knew that what she had built was illegal. She explains why the publishers didn't shut her down right away: "If I had tried to download millions of papers in one go like Aaron Swartz, I would have failed right at the beginning.

Instead of publishing a "Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto" like Swartz and publicly rebelling, she tinkered with a service from home that simply logs in with university accounts, just like normal users do when they want a paper that is behind a paywall. Elbakyan's system was unremarkable.

For a long time, Sci-Hub remained under the publishers' radar. But in the world of so-called shadow libraries, which often work anonymously to release music, films or books, they had been noticed. On 24 April 2012, a message popped up on her email account from the administrator of Library Genesis, Libgen for short, the world's largest - and anonymously run - underground media archive at the time.

The content of the message was a knighthood - and a jackpot. Libgen offered that in future Sci-Hub could store its retrieved articles on Libgen's huge servers. They were in the process of building up their own collection. Moreover, she would be able to access it in future and would no longer have to log into university databases for every query. Libgen's archive, which at the time was worth around eleven million papers, would grow, and Sci-Hub could handle larger numbers of users.

The science industry is bigger than the music industry. Publishers made more than $26 billion in sales in 2020 from technical papers on everything from quantum mechanics to Spanish literature.

In 2013, Chinese users discovered Sci-Hub. To cope with the onslaught, Elbakyan began redirecting requests to Libgen, where 21 million articles were now archived, one million of which Sci-Hub had uploaded. Only if a paper could not be found there did her site use the conventional method of logging in directly to a university.

When Libgen's hard drive presumably burned out and 40,000 stored publications were deleted, Elbakyan began to set up her own servers, which she financed through crowdfunding. From then on, she only used Libgen as a back-up.

At the age of twenty-five, Alexandra Elbakyan realised that completely different orders of magnitude were possible than she had previously thought possible. So it came about that in the year Aaron Swartz took his own life, thousands of kilometres away, she made a plan that would probably have pleased him: the publication of not some, but all research papers. The total liberation of science. 

Science in a stranglehold

Elbakyan did not know then who she was messing with. The science industry is bigger than the global music industry. The latter turned over nearly $22 billion in 2020 with superstars like Billie Eilish, Drake and Ariana Grande. Science publishers had sales of more than 26 billion in the same year with specialist articles ranging from quantum mechanics to Spanish literature to skin diseases. The market is not only huge, it is also extremely concentrated and opaque. Half of all publications in 2021 were published by just five major publishers.

The three largest publishers, Elsevier from the Netherlands and Springer-Nature and Wiley from Germany, had a global market share of 55.2 per cent in 2019, according to the most thorough study currently available. The largest company, Elsevier, garnished a quarter of the entire market.

"The business model is a scandal," says Martin Vetterli of the EPF Lausanne. The public is being fleeced three times for the benefit of the publishers.

Such a large market control by such a small number of companies is called an oligopoly. It sounds like a conspiracy theory, but it is true: the majority of the copyrights of all scientific research results are in the hands of a few companies.

One person who knows the owners and managers of these companies personally is Martin Vetterli from Neuchâtel, a highly decorated researcher and president of the École polytechnique fédérale in Lausanne (EPFL). Vetterli actually always has a smile on his lips, and on his Twitter account the sun is always shining over Lake Geneva. But when it comes to science publishers, a storm is brewing on his forehead. "Their business model is a scandal," he says.

Actually, he says, it is a multiple scandal because the public is being fleeced three times in a row for the benefit of the publishers. First, taxpayers pay for the research, which is then published by commercial providers. Secondly, before research results are published in the form of articles, so-called papers, in journals, scientific journals, researchers paid by the state check the quality of the papers - without being paid by the publisher.

Thirdly, taxpayers would later also have to pay for the expensive subscriptions to the journals through public libraries - in other words, for access to the research they themselves finance. And another thing: "Publishers like Elsevier force universities into secret deals," says Vetterli. They demand that the conditions be kept secret, which in turn contradicts the laws and regulations in public procurement: "The publishers force the universities to break the law."

The business with knowledge

In the past, until the middle of the 20th century, publishing papers was not a business, says Martin Vetterli. Publishing was in the hands of the academies of science. After the Second World War, however, whose end was partly determined by the discoveries in nuclear physics, it began to dawn on some state leaders how important science is. Then, as research budgets increased massively worldwide, resourceful businessmen discovered a money printing machine.

Once a journal has established itself, it is irreplaceable for researchers to keep up to date.

And this is how it works: every research result is unique. You can't simply replace a research report by Albert Einstein with a research report by another physicist. So if you need a particular body of knowledge - as Elbakyan did with her thesis, for example - you can charge a lot of money.

To bundle essays in a field of knowledge, there were the journals, the scientific journals. Every journal is a small monopoly and every publisher of a journal is a monopolist. Because once a journal has established itself, it is irreplaceable for researchers: they need it to be able to refer to their peers and to keep up to date. The prices for the journals can be raised continuously, which makes them so attractive as a business field that a few investors began to buy the small publishing houses that owned the journals in order to turn them into a major publishing house.

The first to discover this money printing machine for themselves were the Briton Robert Maxwell, father of the later Jeffrey Epstein lover Ghislaine Maxwell, and his business partner, the Austrian Paul Rosbaud, a former spy for Great Britain.

On the initiative of the state, the British publishing landscape was to be modernised. To this end, Maxwell and Rosbaud were engaged by the Butterworths publishing house. First they bought the German science publisher Springer (which has nothing to do with the Axel Springer publishing house).

From Springer, the British were to learn how to make money with science. In 1951, Maxwell took over the British parent company and the Springer shares - and began to expand, with Rosbaud as scientific director. They called the newly formed publishing house Pergamon Press.

Their recipe, as one can read in an excellent Guardian article, was simple: where there was no journal, they founded one. They travelled to international conferences and convinced researchers to start a journal. At Lake Geneva, a popular venue for conferences, Maxwell invited people to lavish parties to get in touch with leading researchers. He then convinced them that their field needed a new journal and suggested they put him or her at the helm.

For the requested researchers, being editor of a journal brought reputation and influence - and for the publishers it brought money. In series, the new journals were given titles such as "International Journal of ..." to underline their global claim - and thus maximise the number of future subscribers.

In 2014, the Harvard library reported that its most expensive annual subscription was the "Journal of Comparative Neurology" - $28,787 for a journal.

Thus Pergamon Press became the archetype of a science publishing corporation. The logo: a representation of Athena, goddess of wisdom, copied from a historical coin. This is how money and science came together. The model was copied, and the oligopoly developed that has ruled the market for decades, dividing it up among itself to this day - and constantly raising prices.

Rudolf Mumenthaler, director of the Zurich University Library, estimates that prices rise by five per cent a year, and sometimes even more for large publishers. Between 1984 and 2010, the average price of American journals increased eightfold. The area in which a young Kazakh woman was interested is particularly expensive: In 2014, the Harvard library reported that her most expensive annual subscription was the "Journal of Comparative Neurology": 28,787 dollars - for one journal.

The fact that the internet first blossomed at universities from the 1980s onwards is also due to the fact that it was a way for many researchers to access new research results and papers more easily.

This also explains the historic promise of the World Wide Web, which the physicist Tim Berners Lee launched together with colleagues at the Geneva research centre CERN: access to knowledge for all. Now, at the latest, it was theoretically possible to disseminate knowledge worldwide free of charge. The unintended consequence was that one industry after another soon fell into crisis: first the music industry, then journalism, then film distribution. But not science publishers.

In science, the promise of digitisation even turned into the opposite. One of the first paywalls was introduced in 1997 by the magazine "Science": 10 dollars for 24 hours of access was charged at the time. Digitisation allowed publishers to control access more and more while saving printing costs. Today, publishers almost no longer sell individual subscriptions, but huge and expensive bundles of digital subscriptions.

The Napster of science?

"The publishers are earning more and more," says Martin Vetterli, "but there is less for the researchers." At the same time, he says, the university itself is partly to blame for this development: "We want top researchers. And how do we measure the performance of researchers? By their publications in top journals."

In this way, researchers are driven into the hands of the publishers. They are forced to publish in their flagship journals in order to get good positions. Vetterli calls it an "unholy triad": universities and research cannot do without publishers. And they cash in on all sides. Economists call this "two-sided markets". They arise with platforms. And that is what the publishers have built: A platform dependency.

Sci-Hub is often compared to Napster, a service that offered free music downloads in the early noughties and forced the music industry to completely rethink. In response to the crisis, the iTunes Store was created, where you could download individual songs for money. Later, streaming platforms like Deezer and Spotify prevailed, displacing the copyable MP3 format. Something similar happened with film with platforms like Netflix.

But what Napster did to the music industry, Sci-Hub has not done in ten years. Because in the music industry, artists and labels ultimately live off consumers' money. But no one in science lives off the income from their own publications.

Researchers live off the reputation they earn by publishing in journals and then monetising at universities. Similar to influencers, whose value is determined by criteria such as the number of followers. The greater their value, the more money they can demand from the sponsors whose products they represent.

And here, too, the platform itself has a decisive influence: it ultimately designs which user types are most successful. So Sci-Hub may be able to liberate the papers, but not science. To do that, it would have to attack the journals' reputational sovereignty.

You can see how difficult it is for Martin Vetterli to comment on Sci-Hub. Perhaps his own university library has already been misused by Sci-Hub for the illegal downloading of articles. In any case, according to Elbakyan, the ETH in Zurich was used precisely for this purpose. After a few twists and turns, Vetterli says he has two perspectives: As president of EPFL, he condemns criminal acts, such as the unauthorised dissemination of papers. As a researcher, he believes that research results are there to be read by everyone.

Many people use Sci-Hub simply because it is the fastest way, says Rudolf Mumenthaler of Zurich University Library. Sci-Hub is "the benchmark for user-friendliness", he says admiringly: one click to the desired paper instead of complicated logins.

There is also a hint of envy, because he pays to get the journals: Journals are the biggest cost factor for libraries, on a par with staff costs. "Universities cannot afford such access everywhere", especially in developing countries. Even the top university Harvard announced in 2012 that it could no longer afford the steeply rising subscription fees in general. More and more universities are now daring to boycott. Researchers are then left with no choice but Sci-Hub. 

How a science publisher tried to destroy Sci-Hub and only made it stronger in the process

By 2013 at the latest, Elsevier, the world's largest science publisher, noticed Sci-Hub's existence. The "Magazin" has a comprehensive statement from Anthony Woltermann, who was technical manager of Elsevier's ScienceDirect databases at the time. The first major civil action against Sci-Hub by a publishing house was based on this testimony. It shows that Elsevier waged a desperate defensive battle against Sci-Hub and Libgen between 2013 and 2015.

Elsevier had noticed that some university accounts were being used by third parties to download papers. On sci-hub.org Woltermann found a Paypal account, next to it a call for donations. The money was used to purchase university logins.

And the hack seemed to have been running very successfully for some time, according to the Sci Hub page: "In the last two months we have added 3.5 million articles to our database, frequency increasing," he read there. That meant Sci Hub was tapping 58,000 articles a day. One article every 1.5 seconds. The attackers plundered his company's warehouses before Woltermann's eyes. If this continued, the Sci-Hub and Libgen databases would own an ever larger share of Elsevier's content.

He contacted universities and asked them to block suspicious accounts. This was partially successful. But the number of accounts affected was too high.

Paypal blocked Sci-Hub's account back in 2013. There is little that western digital platforms react to as quickly as they do to copyright infringements.

Elbakyan, however, noticed that access was becoming more difficult. On Twitter, she announced that she would reduce the maximum number of users, "especially for foreigners". She blocked China and Iran, as well as requests from America. Then she changed her access method and accessed the science databases indirectly via so-called access tokens - which made her almost untraceable because this way her requests could no longer be traced back to her IP address.

To take away Elbakyan's funds, Elsevier contacted Paypal, where they blocked Sci-Hub's account back in 2013. With little do Western digital platforms react as quickly as they do to copyright infringement. That was a blow. From then on, Elbakyan collected donations mainly in cryptocurrencies, which are almost impossible to block. Their rise in value, in turn, probably made Sci-Hub rich. One estimate calculated Sci-Hub's bitcoin holdings at 67.42 bitcoins in August 2017.

How much does the Sci-Hub site cost?

Sci-Hub is very rich today, Elbakyan writes on her page. Elbakyan is also currently collecting donations in various cryptocurrencies, whose accounts are publicly visible. In some cases, tens of thousands of francs can be found there. She also collects money in China via Ali Pay, the world's largest digital payment platform.

Elbakyan in Murmansk does not want to reveal exactly how much she owns, but Sci-Hub is secured for at least two years, she estimates, provided the prices do not collapse. The operation of Sci-Hub is cheap: a maximum of 5000 dollars a month for server, domains and website, plus about 1000 dollars a month for protection against so-called DDoS attacks, i.e. the targeted paralysis of the Sci-Hub site by flooding it with requests. On top of that, she has to pay for her own upkeep from the donations.

At first, Elbakyan thought the email with the subject: "NOTICE: YOU HAVE BEEN SUED" was spam. But she had just been sued.

Woltermann realised that Sci-Hub was about to take Elsevier out of business. In 2015, he already found twelve million scientific articles and 29,000 reference books from Elsevier in the Libgen catalogues. At the time, he estimated the scope of the Libgen and Sci-Hubs databases at around forty million articles. Woltermann collected evidence. Technologically and financially, Sci-Hub was unbeatable. His resistance mainly led to Sci-Hub becoming even stronger. Only one thing remained:

On 25 June 2015 at 10.58 a.m., a strange mail reached Alexandra Elbakyan. The subject line: "NOTICE: YOU HAVE BEEN SUED. Civil Summons Elsevier v. www.sci-hub.org et al. (15 Civ. 4282 (rws) )" The mail did not contain a cover letter, just some documents attached.

Elsevier had filed suit.

"In the beginning, I didn't even register the mail. It looked like spam, with these strange capital letters in the subject," Elbakyan recalls. It took her a while to realise that she had been sued. "I didn't feel any fear," she says, "more like a slight excitement." The court was in New York. She was in St. Petersburg.

Still, she thought of defending herself in New York. In her view, the case was about the fundamental question of access to information. The Electronic Frontiers Foundation, the most important NGO for digital rights, rushed to help, organised Elbakyan a free lawyer.

Elbakyan phoned the court to hear the case. But the then twenty-six-year-old quickly realised that her chance was tiny. Elsevier had an enormous amount of money. The incidental costs of the lawsuit alone were beyond her means. In addition, she would have to send in documents that would reveal her whereabouts. Perhaps she would be arrested in Russia. She had a Kazakh passport and her application for Russian citizenship had not been accepted. Even though Russian is her mother tongue: she was a foreigner. "The process proved complicated, expensive and potentially dangerous - I decided against it."

In 2017, Alexandra Elbakyan was ordered by an American court to pay $15 million in damages in absentia.

So she wrote a letter to Judge Robert W. Sweet. In it, she openly explained that she had pirated scientific papers during her studies, that is, illegally captured them. "A price of $32 is just crazy," she wrote. The publishers were "cheating", they would only release goods for money, whereas at Sci-Hub the payment was voluntary, no matter how many articles one had retrieved.

Moreover, no author has ever complained to Sci-Hub about their work being published. Only Elsevier complains. "If there is a law that prevents the dissemination of scientific knowledge, the problem lies with that law," Elbakyan says.

In 2017, Elbakyan was convicted in absentia by an American court, ordered to pay $15 million in damages. The trial had the side effect of bringing Sci-Hub to the world's attention. Major media outlets began reporting, and user numbers shot up as soon as the trial began. Donations started flowing in.

It's the "Streisand effect": you try to make something small, and in doing so you only make it bigger. Because Elbakyan did not pay the fine and did not think of giving up, a legal chase began. With ever new lawsuits, ever tougher demands, ever new technological approaches, the publishers are still trying to close Sci-Hub down.

They were able to make a few pinpricks. Elbakyan has long since had to give up the domain ending .org. In some countries, such as the UK, internet providers have to block the domain sci-hub.se. Today, Sci-Hub has to constantly change the domain to avoid blocking. In some countries, like France or Austria, you have to use VPNs, protected network connections, to access Sci-Hub. Nevertheless, finding the site is no problem. All you have to do is google "Sci-Hub". In Switzerland, its use is legal.

The platform remained harmless in substance. It reliably delivered the essays that were in demand and continued to grow and grow. But something else had changed: Alexandra Elbakyan herself.

Elbakyan politicises herself

In 2012, when Sci-Hub had been online for just over a year and was just a project Alexandra Elbakyan was pursuing on the side, the then twenty-three-year-old moved from Almaty to Moscow. She had seen some promising job postings on the net, read about the "Russian Silicon Valley" called Skolkovo, and got the feeling that they needed people like her in Russia.

What she earned in Moscow through occasional programming jobs was just enough for a place to sleep in a six-bed room on the outskirts of the 12.5 million metropolis. But she was drawn to the centre. During the day, she opened her computer in Starbucks or programmed in libraries where there was free internet.

She often just walked around Red Square, along the walls of the Kremlin and past Lenin's mausoleum. On Red Square there is also the noble shopping arcade GUM, where she discovered an old Soviet canteen where you can eat extremely cheaply. If she didn't have orders, however, she couldn't even afford them, nor tickets for the metro ride home.

Finally, while looking for accommodation, Elbakyan discovered the dormitories of the Moscow School of Economics. The university, one of the most prestigious in the country, trains young cadres for state and company leadership and was founded after the end of the Soviet Union to produce know-how and specialists in the field of free market economics.

From the list of courses, Elbakyan chose administrative sciences. Again she dreamed of a network, this time "of building a great knowledge management system at the state level, a collective brain for a country", as she writes in her autobiography.

When her mother learned that she wanted to study in Russia, she was not at all pleased. "Why don't you go to a real country, the US or at least Europe?"

The first thing, she planned, would be to abolish copyright laws. For that, she would need political support. She had heard about the Russian Pirate Party, to which she wanted to present Sci-Hub. To give her idea more weight, she searched the net for deeper legitimacy, for a guaranteed right to information.

President Medvedev, she recalled, had once spoken of such a thing. Soon she found what she was looking for: Article 27, paragraph 1 of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. There it was in black and white: "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 achievements."

When her mother learned that she wanted to study in Russia, she was not at all pleased. Even when Elbakyan announced that she was moving to Moscow, her mother reacted angrily: "Why don't you go to a real country, to the USA or at least to Europe?" She did not understand why Alexandra did not continue with science.

But it was science she was going to study, Elbakyan replied, and picked out that course at the university with the word "theory" in the title. Her mother was generous, financed her studies and took her on a trip to Paris before the start of the 2015 semester. That was to be Elbakyan's last trip abroad.

She hacks the professors' accounts

In economics classes, she heard about an interesting concept: "public good". This refers to a good from whose use no one may be excluded and whose possibility of use does not diminish if others also make use of it. Markets usually fail when it comes to public goods.

Elbakyan immediately saw the parallels with science. Here, too, the market alone obviously could not meet the demand for research articles. Economic theory seemed to confirm her project: In future, the state should ensure open access to research, she thought.

Soon, however, she began to clash with the lecturers in Moscow. They made fun of Putin and mocked the USSR, she writes in her autobiography. For Elbakyan, they were Russian oppositionists, "so-called liberals".

She hacked into her lecturer's account. "I could see myself through the eyes of another person. And in that person's eyes, I was a subhuman."

It is meant as a swear word. Elbakyan saw herself as a Russian patriot, a supporter of Dmitry Medvedev, who is loyal to Putin, and who has been talking about the "information society" and the internet ever since he became interim president. When she asked critical questions, the lecturers dismissed her, says Elbakyan. The dispute escalated. When she failed a term paper, she wanted to know more precisely what was behind it. Even before that, Elbakyan had suspected that she might get into trouble during exams for political reasons.

Suspicious, she hacked into her lecturer's email account. What she found there shocked her. The lecturer wrote that the rebellious student should be sent packing, put in her place, that she was a "lunatic" and a "schemer". In her biography she notes: "For the first time I could now see myself through the eyes of another person. And in that person's eyes, I was a sub-human."

Her hatred for the "liberals" grew. Years later, when she once felt provoked on the net, she showed Russian users of her website a warning instead of the search window for three days: She would close Sci-Hub in Russia because she was being treated unfairly here. When I ask Elbakyan - many months before the Ukraine invasion - if she remains loyal to Putin, she replies that she belongs to a third faction: "There is Putin, there are the liberals - I am a communist."

At university, she immersed herself in historical topics, became interested in early administrative systems and written culture in antiquity. It fascinated her that the ancient god figure Hermes Trismegistus combined the responsibilities for communication, science and theft, of all things.

Science sometimes needs theft, she concluded, in order to communicate knowledge to people. She remembered an old propaganda slogan for Russian space travel from 1959: "Science and communism are indivisible". The idea that the ancient gods lived on in the constellations also strengthened her fascination with astrology, which she had discovered in the years before.

She moved into a flat where she could set up her own servers, and now she not only had Sci-Hub with her, but a companion for the first time since childhood: Pixel, her cat.

Sci-Hub had about 23 million papers on its servers at the time. Now Elbakyan wanted to record what was still missing. To find out, she started analysing Sci-Hub's statistics. So far, she had done everything on her own, but now she gathered a team of volunteers around her. But working with others was not her thing: "I had to resolve conflicts and was dependent on the speed of others. It was easier to do everything myself," she says about this experience. She was also afraid of being spied on.

Alone against the rest of the world

"Studying in Moscow was a bad experience for Sasha," recalls a former lecturer who later became a friend. Elbakyan dropped out and began studying linguistics in St. Petersburg in 2017. Along the way, she lectured and wrote essays in which she expounded her theses on ancient deities, on how ancient gods manifested themselves in priests and how Stalin continued in this tradition as the all-embracing god of science.

Stalin as a god, that turned even ardent supporters of Sci-Hub against her. The Russian scientific community was all too aware that Stalin had also had many scientists executed.

Alone and against the rest of the world: with the vague idea of cyber-communism in her head, Alexandra Elbakyan continued to push Sci-Hub forward. The number of users continued to rise steadily. The site recorded 200,000 downloads per day, more than two papers per second. Wasn't that proof that her communist ideal of science was on the rise?

The battle between Sci-Hub and the publishers became a systemic competition between two ideologies. She wants to fight this battle until the law is changed, she says today in Murmansk. "As long as we don't live in communism, Sci-Hub is needed." 

Is Alexandra Elbakyan a spy?

On 19.12.2019, The Washington Post headlined, "Justice Department investigates Sci-Hub founder on suspicion of working with Russian intelligence." To date, nothing has been found out about the status of the investigation. The report was based on statements from "informed sources".

In May 2021, it was confirmed that an investigation was underway. Elbakyan received a mail from Apple, again a subject in capital letters, again she thought it was spam: "Note regarding customer data request". She opened and read that Apple had received a request from the FBI on 2 June 2019, which they had complied with.

"No sane person believes this story about the poor girl from Kazakhstan." Andrew Pitts can hardly contain himself. He heads the IP Registry, which is a hinge between publishers and libraries to help prevent fraud and hacks.

Pitts is a veteran of the industry, building a digital distribution structure for academic content in the 1990s and long working for the American Chemical Society, a scientific society and publisher of numerous journals that is a particularly active plaintiff against Sci-Hub.

Pitts says the very argument that Sci-Hub provides access to science is nonsense: "We do a lot of work on improving information provision with really poor regions and institutions." Through the WHO and the Research4Life platform, 99 percent of all research results in poor countries are available for free, he says.

Lobbyist Andrew Pitts believes Sci-Hub is an operation of the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, which is also blamed for the election hacks in the USA.

Such programmes, however, only help the poorest countries. Nevertheless, many universities in emerging countries cannot afford access and are excluded from the aid projects. Pitts implies that this is their own fault: "Kazakhstan is actually quite rich, it's just that no money goes to the universities, but into the pockets of a few."

He does not see the high demand for Sci-Hub as proof of a real need. "You have millions of requests a month from the US, but from there anyone can access it through the universities." Sci-Hub is only popular because it is a "one-stop shop", he said. "The whole thing is fantastically done. It's all about convenience for people."

He has been involved with Sci-Hub for years and has just returned from talks about it in New York, he says in late November 2021. Police investigations are in full swing, he says, with Britain's foreign intelligence agency MI6 also looking into the case. "The FBI only investigates if there is reasonable initial suspicion," he says.

Pitts believes Sci-Hub is an operation by the Russian government and the Russian military intelligence agency GRU, which is also blamed for the election hacks in the US. "The whole thing is a Trojan horse. You lure the best minds in the world to use (Sci-Hub, ed.), then you track them, get their tax information, national insurance numbers, and subsequently you use that to get research results."

Pitts asks, "How is it that in the mid-2020s, the best universities in the world together are giving their all to bring out the first Covid vaccine; and then Russia is faster, just happened to develop the Sputnik vaccine, which is based exactly on this secret research?" With the start of Corona, he says, massive amounts of results were also tapped from medical labs via accounts pirated by Sci-Hub.

However, he cannot provide proof. The libraries and universities did not want to release it, he claims. "I've seen the evidence, and your head would explode if you knew what was really going on here." But it's easy to see it from the outside, he adds: Sci-Hub is a massive operation, he said. "It costs millions and millions a month just to provide this amount of data," he says. "Do the maths yourself!"

A Swiss IT crack checks your website

That's exactly what we do. On our behalf, Felix Marthaler, a security expert well-known in the Swiss coder scene, gets into the Sci-Hub code, checks the structure of the website, analyses the locations from which mails are sent. Most of them come from Moscow, which does not contradict Elbakyan's statements.

Her website uses Yandex Metrica, the Russian version of Google Tracker, which reads user information to determine location, gender or age of users. Elbakyan knows her users, but she also knows how to protect them. She has hidden her servers, on which the Sci-Hub data is stored, behind insurmountable protective walls. She uses NJalla, a service developed by Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde that disguises domain ownership.

When you ask who is behind the Sci-Hub domain, NJalla blocks anything important and instead sends a little word puzzle in code form. When you solve it, it says, "You can get no info."

"NJalla is some of the best the net has to offer," says Marthaler. Had Elbakyan not publicly professed to be behind Sci-Hub, she could not be identified as the operator. In other words, there's no way to verify whether it's really her servers or someone else's.

The monthly costs quoted by Elbakyan to make her almost ninety million PDFs available on the net worldwide, even with large numbers of requests, are realistic, says Marthaler. 5,000 dollars a month would be enough. And you don't need millions to store the data either: The 100 terabytes of storage space that Sci-Hub needs would currently cost about 28,000 Swiss francs in a normal Swiss online shop. Double back-up included.

When Marthaler checks Elbakyan's DDoS defence, i.e. the protection of her website against targeted request flooding, he comes across something conspicuous: Elbakyan uses DDoS-Guard. DDoS-Guard disguises the server location. Based in Rostov, Russia, the company is known to count the Palestinian Hamas, drug traffickers, right-wing radicals and conspiracy theorists among its current or former clients.

Working with large criminal websites is often lucrative because they have few alternatives. But it requires a state that does not interfere in such business. Perhaps that is why the company moved from Ukraine to Russia in 2014. Meanwhile, DDoS-Guard works for central parts of the Russian state: it protects parts of the websites of the Russian Ministry of Defence and the Russian Central Bank, and it helped with the technical preparations for the disconnection of the Russian internet that Putin is pushing.

Worst of all, Marthaler finds, DDoS-Guard can read which users request which content as a so-called man-in-the-middle at Sci-Hub. So with a company as intertwined as DDoS-Guard, the question is who is reading along at Sci-Hub.

Elbakyan admits that DDoS-Guard can read "a lot of things", but that also applies to Google or Elsevier. "There is no harmful or useful information from the Sci-Hub download log." Originally, Elbakyan says, she used the well-known American competitor Cloudflare. But the US court forbade American companies from working with her. DDoS-Guard simply contacted her one day and told her that they also worked for another pirate site: Ru-Tracker, a site that helps users find download links to mostly illegally provided content. Not everyone works with pirates, Elbakyan says.

Elbakyan seems to have been hurt by the accusations over the years. She believes that the media and even Wikipedia are deliberately denouncing her.

No concrete evidence that Sci-Hub has been infiltrated or even set up by Russian authorities can be found in the code, Marthaler says. Nor, she says, has it ever been contacted by Russian intelligence. "Why would they?" she asks. "I think Sci-Hub has already helped a lot of Russian researchers a lot."

She runs her own servers, in secret locations, so she doesn't use a cloud to maintain independence, she says. It does not supply information to the GRU. But above all, Sci-Hub is not a really complicated and expensive project. It has automated everything over the last ten years to such an extent that sometimes it has to do nothing for weeks, sometimes it has to work through to adjust something. Accusations like Pitts' make her angry, she sees sexism behind them: "Is he asking because I'm a woman? Does he think I can't?"

Elbakyan seems to have been hurt by the accusations over the years. She believes that the media and even Wikipedia are deliberately denouncing her. She is so afraid of spies that she suspects even close people of being part of a conspiracy against her. "Did you think this was Novichok (a nerve agent, editor's note)?", Elbakyan wrote to me after I left. She had observed that I had given a guest gift from her, a local pine syrup, to the photographer. The real reason: I only had hand luggage.

It is a lot of burden that rests on her shoulders, her friends say, and she is all alone with it. But she is no longer completely alone.

India comes to Sci-Hub's rescue

When on 21.12.2020 Sci-Hub posted on Twitter that Elsevier, Wiley and the American Chemical Society had filed a lawsuit in Delhi to block access to Sci-Hub in India, a shock wave went through the Indian scientific community.

The publishers had chosen the timing of the lawsuit insensitively. India was struggling with the covid pandemic and many medical professionals need access to research reports. India is one of the countries with the highest use of Sci-Hub - and is one of those countries where researchers and medical professionals do not benefit from the discounted access to scientific publications.

Indian doctoral students explain that since the beginning of the pandemic, they would have been practically unable to conduct research without Sci-Hub.

Among those who read Elbakyan's tweet was Nilesh Jain, now a twenty-eight-year-old lawyer who made it to one of the country's top universities from humble rural beginnings.

On the phone, he tells how indispensable Sci-Hub was for his studies. The University of Delhi has over 25,000 students. For them, there were six computers in the central library where they could access the databases of scientific publishers. However, half of the computers were always broken, says Jain. He contacted Elbakyan and offered his help. Surprisingly, Elbakyan accepted. For the first time, she faced a lawsuit, Elbakyan against Elsevier, David against Goliath.

Nilesh Jain gathered some helpers and obtained an extension of time at the Court on Christmas Eve 2020. For his team, he enlisted copyright expert Rohan K George and Gopal Sankaranarayanan, one of India's best-known lawyers. The circumstances were tough. The pandemic was in full swing, curfews were in place. Jain had to ask again for an extension and was given two more weeks.

On the side, Jain went about his regular work, but for Sci-Hub he worked for free and in his spare time. On 20 January 2021, at the very last moment, his team filed a two thousand nine hundred page defence.

Jain believes that the starting position for Sci-Hub is better than ever. This is because India has a particularly advanced intellectual property law that provides exceptions for research purposes. Meanwhile, there is also a precedent in which publishers like Oxford University Press had sued a copy shop. Their argument that copying and distributing copyrighted materials is legal as long as it is for study and research purposes was successful in court. The publishers withdrew their suit. Could Sci-Hub now do the same? "The opportunity is real," says Jain.

US Nobel laureate in medicine Randy Schekman has announced his support for Elbakyan.

"If we win," says Jain, "it will have an international impact." The practice could set a precedent worldwide. It is probably the publishers' greatest fear that the Americans will legislate free access to government-funded research.

Meanwhile, Jain's defence is gaining support at home. In a letter to the court, a group of senior Indian researchers warns that blocking Sci-Hub would "cut off the lifeline" of Indian research.

A large group of PhD students say that since the pandemic began, they have been virtually unable to conduct research without Sci-Hub, as it has become impossible to visit libraries. Support is also coming from other parts of the world. The US Nobel laureate in medicine Randy Schekman told "Das Magazin" that he would speak out in support of Elbakyan.

Open Access instead of Sci-Hub?

However, Elbakyan had to swallow a bitter pill. For the trial, Sci-Hub offered the court that it would not add any new papers to its servers for the time being. Five million new research articles are published every year, and the longer Elbakyan sticks to the agreement, the greater its backlog compared to the normal science databases. Sci-Hub still offers more high-profile papers than the main conventional databases. In February, it delivered over sixty million papers. But of course, the numbers could now drop. Elbakyan says, "If it goes on too long, I will start uploading again."

Possibly, however, that won't be necessary.

For a few years now, the so-called open access procedure has been gaining ground. By now, probably a third of all newly published papers worldwide are openly accessible, and the trend is rising. The publishers still earn money from this because the researchers themselves now pay for the publication of their work, around 2,000 dollars, depending on the journal also around 10,000 dollars.

But at least the access problem for users is less. In addition, the market power of the big publishers is beginning to crack: When universities negotiate with publishers, they can be tougher because they know that researchers can also access publications via Sci-Hub if necessary.

It was in the USA, and under Donald Trump, of all places, that Elbakyan's approach received its greatest confirmation. Under pressure from numerous researchers, the White House's technology and science advisors, together with companies, created the largest openly accessible collection of covid studies at the time.

In the pandemic, human lives came before profits, and some publishers lifted their payment barriers. The result: never before had research and studies been discussed so intensively, even among lay people. Despite the media hype about lateral thinkers: the social recognition of research has measurably increased in the last two years.

Independently of this, science has become freer and more readily available thanks to Elbakyan. Millions of research results previously hidden behind paywalls are out in the world. However, Sci-Hub is no longer alone: there are now copycats and digital twins on the web who copy Sci-Hub's datasets and make them available. It may be that all these developments will make Sci-Hub, Elbakyan's life's work, superfluous.

But wouldn't that be her real life's work - that Sci-Hub is no longer needed? 





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