A few days ago, at the international exhibition Geek Picnic 2017 in Moscow, LEAF director Elena Milova had the opportunity to talk with the founder of Sci-Hub, Alexandra Elbakyan. The Sci-Hub website is devoted to providing scientists, students, and researchers with free access to scientific publications that would otherwise be locked behind paywalls.
In this exclusive interview, Alexandra talks about the history of the project and shares her vision on how to stimulate the transition to an open access system globally.
Before you watch the interview, we would like to remind you why progress in this direction is so important for science, particularly rejuvenation biotechnology.
70% of scientific publications are behind paywalls
A typical scientific project requires a review of everything that was investigated previously. Depending on the subject, this can mean collecting up to several hundreds of full-text scientific publications and having them at hand for analysis for several years.
However, up to 70% of these publications are paid ones, which means having to obtain the journals for a fee ($30-50 per publication) or under the terms of a subscription (several hundred dollars per year for an individual user, or 5-30 thousand dollars per year or even more for an institution). An individual researcher may need to pay around $15,000 out of pocket just to collect all the information necessary for a mandatory review of the literature.
This amount is comparable to a small research grant in size; if the money is used this way, then what remains to run the study itself?
Research institutions have to buy subscriptions to get access to these publications for their scientific groups, but they often struggle to do so, because there are many journals covering each area of science, so they need to subscribe to many journals at once, which drains their modest budgets even more.
This has provoked several attempts to boycott the big publishing houses in order to force them to change their price policies.
Open access research – better for progress
There is an alternative type of publication, called ‘open access’. Under this model, scientific publications are available for free to whoever needs them, but, in exchange, the authors of the project have to pay a fee of 2 to 5 thousand dollars to the journal per publication – money usually taken from the funds of their research grant.
This system again greatly benefits the scientific journals financially, as most of the work preparing it for publication and peer review is done by the authors for free and not by the journal.
So, what does this mean in terms of the distribution of scientific information within academia and the general public? And, most importantly, what are the consequences for scientific progress?
The system is hindering scientific progress
Well, most scientists who face paywalls in their work agree that this system hinders progress and disrupts both scientific communication and the distribution of up-to-date scientific knowledge among the general public.
They are almost certainly right: imagine that you are a young medical practitioner and read a news article about an exciting study to reverse some age-related damage with a well-known intervention.
You want to learn more, so you look for the original publication on Pubmed, but the only part you can see is a small summary (the abstract), which often provides nothing but the description of the study goals, and the rest is locked behind a hefty fee.
How would this help you to adjust what health and longevity advice that you offer to patients?
The right to benefit from scientific advancement
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights contains a section dedicated to setting an appropriate standard for the results of scientific advancement:
1. 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 benefits.
2. Everyone has the right to the protection of the moral and material interests resulting from any scientific, literary or artistic production of which he is the author.
This set of standards together with the growing tension within the scientific community requires changes to local and global legislation. These changes should enable scientists all over the world to freely exchange the results of their work, and they should remove inequalities related to access so that the representatives of federal agencies, civil society organizations (including civil scientists), and the general public can benefit from evidence-based data as much as the members of research institutions.
Thanks to the activities of the movement for open access, the issue was recently raised as high as the European Commission. All projects receiving Horizon 2020 funding are required to make sure that any peer-reviewed journal article that they publish is openly accessible free of charge.
Bypassing the system
However, the changes in legislation to remove the barriers to dissemination of scientific information need time to be implemented, and the researchers need access right now. It is no surprise that they are seeking ways to bypass these obstacles.
One of the most successful initiatives in this direction is Sci-Hub – a site allowing people to get free access to scientific publications regardless of their open or paid status. Sci-Hub was founded back in 2011 by Alexandra Elbakyan, a neuroscience researcher from Kazakhstan.
As she mentions in her interview with LEAF, she first faced the problem of closed publications when she was still a university student, and, since then, she has been trying to find a way to help her fellow researchers solve this problem.
Sci-Hub now claims to contain more than 60 million publications and proceed hundreds of thousands of requests per day.
While publishing houses in several countries are seeking to sue Alexandra and stop the activities of Sci-Hub under the pretext of copyright violation, the scientific community does nothing but welcome the initiative and spread the word about this open access platform around the world.
Despite the common expectation that the service would be mostly used by researchers in the least developed countries (as they can least afford access to publications), a recent study shows that a great share of the Sci-Hub audience comes from the most developed countries and is located at big universities.
Another recent study of Sci-Hub was performed by Bastian Greshake, researcher at the Institute of Cell Biology and Neuroscience, Goethe University Frankfurt (Germany), and has shed light on what areas of science require more accessibility and which journals are the most requested – the leaders being Elsevier, Springer Nature and Wiley-Blackwell.
Alexandra Elbakyan speaks to LEAF
We spoke to Alexandra about the history of Sci-Hub and her vision of why science should be freely available to all in this exclusive interview, and we hope you will enjoy it as much as we enjoyed spending time with Alexandra and learning about her work. The original interview is also available here for Russian speakers.
While the legal status of open access initiatives like Sci-Hub remain controversial (unlike the robust moral grounds of these initiatives), we should not forget just how much we all depend on the pace of scientific and technological progress.
The availability of scientific information to researchers as well as to advocacy groups can influence the pace at which we can proceed to clinical trials and then to the implementation of rejuvenation technologies into clinical practice.
In closing, it is worth keeping in mind that a longevity-friendly legislation landscape should promote open access by default and that we should all be pushing to change the current status quo for the betterment of scientific knowledge.
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