Blackballed by PayPal, Scientific-Paper Pirate Takes Bitcoin Donations
A silent rebellion against copyright law is being waged by a freelance programmer on a single cryptocurrency website where PayPal doesn't.
Bitcoin as censorship-free money has been used by outlaws of all kinds, but this time the outlaw is a young scientist from Kazakhstan who is breaking the paywalls of trade journals.
Alexandra Elbakyan, a 31-year-old freelance programmer, neurobiologist and phylologist, maintains a database of over 80 million journal articles that are normally only available through subscriptions. What started as a doctoral student out of frustration became a free research service that was funded only by donations. For most people around the world, Bitcoin is the only way to support Elbakyan's work.
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The website, named Sci-Hub, has been sued by two science publishers and has been reportedly investigated by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible espionage on behalf of the Russian intelligence agency. (Elbakyan said she was never contacted by the U.S. authorities.) This effectively cut Elbakyan off from popular financial services in the West.
Elbakyan informed CoinDesk that the website recorded around 600,000 downloads a day. Even for researchers who have subscriptions through universities, Sci-Hub turns out to be the most convenient option to get content for their research, she said.
However, their struggles underscore one of the basic value propositions of cryptocurrency: if people can't use the popular payment methods, crypto offers an alternative. It's hardly a sign of widespread acceptance, but it's "a good example of Bitcoin as a niche payment channel," economist John Paul Koning told CoinDesk.
"For most purposes, people prefer regular fiat payments because they are simple," said Koning, a CoinDesk columnist. “But if they are locked out, either because of illegal or legal activities that are considered socially unacceptable, Bitcoin becomes an option. People who have been excluded from these conventional systems are slowly discovering that Bitcoin can serve them. "
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According to Elbakyan, Bitcoin only makes up a small part of all donations. Most often, it is the online payment service Yandex.Money, which is available in Russia and in nearby countries such as Ukraine, Belarus and Kazakhstan. However, for all other parts of the world, crypto is the only direct way to support Sci-Hub.
Sometimes that can be a problem. Few people still trust Bitcoin, Elbakyan says, and some countries like Bolivia and Ecuador prohibit crypto.
"Someone recently wrote to me that drug addicts only use Bitcoin in their country and asked if there are other ways to donate," said Elbakyan.
In 2018, University of Pennsylvania postdoctoral researcher Daniel Himmelstein and a group of other scientists found that Sci-Hub had collected more than 94 Bitcoin worth around $ 900,000 at current prices before 2018. Speaking to CoinDesk, Elbakyan confirmed that the estimate was largely fair.
The 2017 Bitcoin Rally was a good moment for her, says Elbakyan, as she was able to sell Bitcoin at a high price. But otherwise it is nonchalant in everything related to blockchain and distributed technology. When asked whether distributed file storage solutions in progress could be useful for Sci-Hub, she says that the site is functioning as it is.
Elbakyan's conflict with the publishing industry cost her the opportunity to use services in the United States. In 2015, the Dutch science publisher Elsevier, publisher of 2,500 science journals, including The Lancet and ScienceDirect, sued Sci-Hub for copyright infringement.
In 2017, a federal court, the Southern District Court of New York, on the Elsevier and Sci-Hub side, should rule, shut down, and pay $ 15 million in damages. In a similar lawsuit, the American Chemistry Society won a case against Elbakyan and the right to claim an additional $ 4.8 million in damages.
In addition, both courts effectively prohibited any US company from facilitating Sci-Hub's work. Elbakyan had to migrate the website from their early .org domain, and US-based online payment services are no longer an option for them. She can no longer use Cloudflare, a service that protects websites from denial-of-service attacks, she said.
“When I opened a PayPal account, the donations hit every minute. But after a day the wallet would be frozen, ”said Elbakyan. She showed CoinDesk an email from PayPal in 2013, informing Elbakyan that Elsevier had reported it for copyright infringement, and she should either remove the infringing material from Sci-Hub or remove PayPal as a donation option.
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“Payment processors are increasingly interested in what their users do with their services. It even goes so far as to ban political figures who may disapprove, ”said Nic Carter, partner at Castle Island Ventures.
"In this world of politicized payment tracks, the existence of a neutral alternative that treats everyone equally is a stroke of luck," said Carter, referring to Bitcoin.
PayPal's press office has not returned CoinDesk's request for a comment at the time of printing.
Researchers in the USA, like Elbakyan, who cannot afford expensive subscriptions to access scientific content, can only thank her with Bitcoin. And they use Sci-Hub, as data show.
Himmelstein found that Sci-Hub has grown in popularity since its inception in 2011, from 185,243 daily downloads in February 2016 to 458,589 in 2017. Researchers found that using Sci-Hub University of Pennsylvania library has exceeded twenty times.
While speaking to CoinDesk, 30 articles were downloaded within three minutes, Elbakyan said, adding that during the busiest hours, thousands of articles can be downloaded at the same time.
"If you work from home, you have to access the university server first. And a lot of people told me that they had to click through multiple links and even then the paper wouldn't open - legal access is so awkward," said Elbakyan.
She was initially frustrated with the cost of academic knowledge as a student and was working on her thesis, Elbakyan wrote in her autobiography about Sci-Hub. As a teenager, she hacked websites for fun. When she was 16, she wrote a script that, despite the paywall, allowed her to download books for free from the MIT CogNet website, Elbakyan wrote.
At the time, she would rely on the network of researchers who would share articles that they had access to through an online forum, she said in an interview with the Newtonew website. Then she decided to create an automatically updated database of academic knowledge that would become Sci-Hub.
The website uses other researchers' credentials for university proxy servers - Elbakyan won't tell how exactly they get the credentials - and automatically downloads papers to Sci-Hub's server, where users use a web address or a unique identifier for a paper can find you need.
"Most people don't care"
Elbakyan maintains the website alone and believes that this is the safest way. "If you have a team, it can fall apart at some point or you have a mole," she said.
Although she doesn't need more people working on Sci-Hub, she'd like to see a broad discussion about free access to academic knowledge, she says. Elbakyan is a communist who describes herself in her political views and believes that the science publisher's paywall policy is a kind of censorship.
"I had a dream that Sci-Hub would be discussed by the United States," said Elbakyan, referring to the United Nations. "For example, Russia could tell the United States that it is a violation of human rights [to prohibit Sci-Hub] because the United States' declaration of human rights states that everyone has the right to participate in scientific progress." But that was just a dream. "
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Elbakyan says she didn't approach political parties or government agencies and thought that if they were interested, they could take up the censorship argument. She doesn't think that most people are interested in discussing freedom of knowledge.
“There is no real community to discuss, you hardly hear such voices. Not only in the mainstream media, but also on YouTube, for example. Everything died until 2013 when Aaron Swartz died, ”she said, adding that many people don't care how and why they work, although many people use their website or pirate websites like torrent trackers.
"People don't think about the [copyright] laws, about doing something about it or voting against it," says Elbakyan. "When people turn to me, they usually write" thank you "or ask how they can donate better."
Carter (who is also a CoinDesk columnist) believes Sci-Hub has come into conflict with the publishing industry. "The law and morality are not always the same, and certainly not in this case," he said, adding:
“Sci-Hub has undoubtedly made the world a better place, so Alexandra had to live as a pariah. Funding your operations with Bitcoin perfectly shows the value proposition. "
Blackened by PayPal, Scientific-Paper Pirate accepts Bitcoin donations
Blackened by PayPal, Scientific-Paper Pirate accepts Bitcoin donations
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