BY KAVEH WADELL, FEB 9, 2016
After getting shut down late last year, a website that allows free access to paywalled academic papers has sprung back up in a shadowy corner of the Internet.
There’s a battle raging over whether academic research should be free, and it’s overflowing into the dark web.
Most modern scholarly work remains locked behind paywalls, and unless your computer is on the network of a university with an expensive subscription, you have to pay a fee, often around 30 dollars, to access each paper.
Many scholars say this system makes publishers rich—Elsevier, a company that controls access to more than 2,000 journals, has a market capitalization about equal to that of Delta Airlines—but does not benefit the academics that conducted the research, or the public at large. Others worry that free academic journals would have a hard time upholding the rigorous standards and peer reviews that the most prestigious paid journals are famous for.
Some years ago, a university student in Kazakhstan took it upon herself to set free the vast trove of paywalled academic research. That student, Alexandra Elbakyan, developed Sci-Hub, an online tool that allows users to easily download paywalled papers for free.
Sci-Hub uses university networks to access subscription-only academic papers, generally without the knowledge of the academic institutions. When a user asks Sci-Hub to access a paid article, the service will download it from a university that subscribes to the database that owns it. As it delivers the user a pdf of the requested article, it also saves a copy on its own server, so that next time someone requests the paper, they can download the cached version.
Unsurprisingly, Elbakyan’s project has drawn the ire of publishers. Last year, Elsevier sued Sci-Hub and an associated website called Library Genesis for violating its copyright. The two websites “operate an international network of piracy and copyright infringement by circumventing legal and authorized means of access to the ScienceDirect database,” Elsevier’s lawyers wrote in a court filing, referring to the company’s subscription database.
A judge for the New York Southern District Court ruled in favor of the publisher, and Sci-Hub’s domain, sci-hub.org, was shut down. Soon, the service popped up again under a different domain.
But even if the new domain gets shut down, too, Sci-Hub will still be accessible on the dark web, a part of the Internet often associated with drugs, weapons, and child porn. Like its seedy dark-web neighbors, the Sci-Hub site is accessible only through Tor, a network of computers that passes web requests through a randomized series of servers in order to preserve visitors’ anonymity.
Illegal activity thrives on this part of the Internet, partly because its contents aren’t visible to search engines like Google. The Tor network makes it very difficult to know where an offending server is, allowing sites like Silk Road, a prominent drug marketplace, to survive for years. (Silk Road was finally shut down in 2013 and its creator, Ross Ulbricht, was sentenced to life in prison.)
But the investigation that took down the Silk Road took up countless government resources. It’s unlikely new Sci-Hub website would attract the same amount of negative attention, so the website is likely safe behind the many layers of encryption that protect sites on the dark web.