In the world of academic scientific research, Alexandra Elbakyan is the real-life equivalent of Robin Hood. The platform she developed, Sci-Hub, provides access to vital research papers – usually only available via the portals of leading publishers such as Elsevier and Springer Nature.
Despite the complaints of leading publishers, Sci-Hub has quickly risen in prominence because of its popularity with researchers. University scholars are turning to the platform en masse, due to the exorbitant fees charged by leading publishers for access to the journals they control.
Because of the open-access to information created by Sci-Hub, a group of publishers have formed a consortium that aims to find ways to protect copyrighted journals and the massive profits they result in. This body has come to be known as the Scholarly Networks Security Initiative (SNSI), and they are dead-set against open-access sites such as Sci-Hub. In fact, they claim that:
Sci-Hub hosts stolen research papers which have been harvested from publisher platforms often using stolen user credentials.
Though they have presented no evidence to support that claim, they believe that such sites are cybercriminal in nature, and must be controlled – likely to ensure that universities keep paying through the nose for research materials.
The fact that publishing houses can charge increasingly bloated prices for access to journals required to provide education and conduct research is pretty scary, especially when you consider the kinds of price hikes universities have been facing in recent years.
In 2018, the University of California revealed that it was paying Elsevier approximately $11 million per year, for access to around 1500 scientific journals. That works out to a subscription fee of $7,333 per journal. Such access costs are damaging to academia, and threaten to stifle education and innovation by withholding research on financial grounds.
However, this ethical dilemma is far beyond our realms.
Now, to make things worse, the SNSI has revealed plans that would result in students and researchers being surveilled by publishers in a way that stands to harm their personal privacy for a long time into the future.
The recent webinar by SNSI proposed the introduction of spyware into proxy servers used by Universities to access publisher databases. That covert software, SNSI suggested, could be leveraged to harvest researchers’ biometric information – such as how quickly they type and move their mouse – to allow those individuals to be identified and tracked elsewhere.
This kind of tracking, at the hands of academic publishers, is extremely concerning because it would create the potential to single out students who access illegal repositories such as Sci-Hub.
Because of this surveillance, any universities and academics in favor of the bargaining chip created by Sci-Hub would once again be forced into paying the ever-rising cost of subscriptions to journals – in what ultimately amounts to a monopoly over information.
Even with the question of access to information aside (a question that is extremely important because the majority of papers controlled by Elsevier were originally funded by taxpayer cash) the idea that publishers might soon begin harvesting biometric information that can be used to track individuals for the rest of their life – is incredibly concerning.
Sci-Hub hosts around 85 million scientific papers, and it has resulted in huge numbers of institutions – including 300 Swedish and German universities and the University of California – canceling their subscriptions to journals hosted by Elsevier.
Academia itself has no ethical qualms with accessing these materials for free. At least 3,000 academics, including medal-winning mathematicians, have actively called for boycotting Elsevier. And, when domains for Sci-Hub are blocked by ISPs using court orders, academics often turn to technologies like VPNs to bypass those blocks.
The possibility that students and researchers could be singled out and criminalized with their biometrics – to protect an industry that is actively damaging education, science, and progress – is something that ought to be concerning to all.
It also serves to put emphasize why it is vital for government regulators to double down on privacy protections that prevent corporations from tracking humans to protect their parasitic interests.