Alexandra Elbakyan is a highbrow pirate in hiding.
The 27-year-old graduate student from Kazakhstan is operating a searchable online database of nearly 50 million stolen scholarly journal articles, shattering the $10 billion-per-year paywall of academic publishers.
Elbakyan has kept herself beyond the reach of a federal judge who late last year issued an injunction against her site, noting that damages could total $150,000 per article — a sum that Applied and Computational Harmonic Analysis, a journal in her database, could help calculate. But she is not hiding from responsibility.
“There are many ways to argue that copyright infringement is not theft, but even if it is, it is justified in this case,” she said in an instant-message interview via Google. “All content should be copied without restriction. But for education and research, copyright laws are especially damaging.”
Elbakyan is pursuing a master’s degree in the history of science while pursuing the worldwide liberation of knowledge from, as she sees it, the tyranny of for-profit publishers. Her ideology was shaped growing up in a former Soviet republic where access to information and the Internet was difficult.
She has even been compared to Robin Hood, although she said, “Sometimes I think it is not a good comparison, since what he was doing was illegal. And sharing books and research articles should not be illegal.”
Many academics, university librarians and longtime advocates for open scholarly research are closely following Elbakyan’s efforts. They believe she is finally giving academic publishers their Napster moment, a reference to the illegal music-sharing service that disrupted and permanently altered the industry.
“While we don’t condone fraud and using illegal sources, I will say that I appreciate how she is shining a light on just how out of whack the system is of providing easy access to basic information that our universities and scholars need to advance science and research,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, an organization that advocates for open access to research. “This has been a problem for decades.”
But to publishers, the only example Elbakyan is setting is that of a thief.