Sci-Hub: Free knowledge using free money
The Sci-Hub website offers more than 80 million research publications free of charge despite copyright violations, based on the idea that scientific knowledge should be freely available. The site is popular worldwide and especially in poorer countries, but has been criticized by major publishers and banned by financial institutions. There is only one more way the website can receive global donations: bitcoin.
The initiator of Sci-Hub is Alexandra Elbakyan, a 31-year-old programmer, neurobiologist and philologist who became frustrated with the high costs of scientific research during her student years. The majority of them are published in scientific journals of a handful of large publishers, such as the British-Dutch Elsevier, and they make a lot of money.
For example, a subscription to a scientific journal about Chemistry currently costs an average of approximately € 4,248 per year. The cheapest are general scientific journals; on average they cost ‘only’ € 1385 per year. The profit margin for publishers would rise to almost 40%. The number of scientific journals is also large; Elsevier alone publishes over 2000 titles.
For universities that want to have access to the latest scientific research, it regularly produces cost items that range between € 450,000 and € 1.8 million per year. Even the well-known Harvard University indicated in 2012 that it is struggling to pay the increasingly higher costs.
For individuals, the knowledge is completely unaffordable and usually therefore also unreachable. This also applies to Alexandra Elbakyan from Kazakhstan, who regularly ran into expensive pay walls during her studies and therefore had no access to relevant investigations. Using a self-written script, she managed to bypass the payment walls and still get hold of the investigations, which she then saved in a database.
Years later, that database has grown into Sci-Hub; a publicly accessible website on which more than 80 million scientific studies are freely available for download. It is perhaps the largest public database of scientific publications ever; more than two thirds of all surveys worldwide are said to be found. Everything is free, based on the idea that (scientific) knowledge should be freely available.
The site attracts around 600,000 visitors every day. Three quarters come from non-western countries and probably use the website for economic reasons. The rest are from the west and presumably use the website because it works faster and easier than traditional roads.
However, Sci-Hub is a thorn in the side of publishers, as they see their revenue model affected. Just as when the film and music industry was first confronted with piracy years ago, publishers went on the offensive and filed various lawsuits against Sci-Hub. The US Department of Justice would also investigate whether the website has anything to do with Russian espionage.
As a result, Sci-Hub is completely banned from traditional financial systems such as the international banking system and other payment services such as PayPal. Donating to the website, the only form of income for Sci-Hub, has been problematic ever since.
Only Russian payment provider Yandex still provides services, but that can only be used in a few countries in the Russian sphere of influence. For the rest of the world, it is only possible to donate via bitcoin.
Bitcoin donations for free knowledge
And that also happens. According to researchers from the University of Pennsylvania, and later endorsed by Elbakyan, some 94 BTC was donated through 2018; at the current rate worth almost € 800,000. How many bitcoin donations have been received since then is not known, but at the current bitcoin address used for the donations, 183 transactions have been received in the past 4 months with a combined value of approximately 1.3 BTC (+/- € 11,000).
Elbakyan has little more to do with bitcoin; her fight is that for freely available knowledge and bitcoin is just a way to collect donations. But, that is perhaps something to think about: in a world where you take on the prevailing order and are financially opposed or censored, bitcoin is simply available.