The “Robin Hood of Science” continues to provide more than 60 million scientific papers to anyone in the world for free at https://sci-hub.st

The first issues of the first scientific journals were published in 1665, including an “observation made in England, of a spot in one of the Belts of the Planet Jupiter,” thanks to new telescopes invented by a certain Mr. Newton, whose friend Halley described a comet. The same journal that reported that oranges and lemons could cure scurvy and something in willow tree bark could bring down a fever also published a letter by someone over in the Colonies about playing with kites during lightning storms and included an account of a remarkable eight-year-old musician by the name of Amadeus. Within this last century, the journal printed some sketchings of the structure of a molecule called DNA. You can see actual pages from these journals, dating back hundreds of years, at the start of my video How to Access Research Articles for Free. Still publishing to this day, 350 years later, the journal is now available online and in print for the low, low subscription price of only $6,666 a year. 

As you can imagine, because of the high price of journals, “doctors and other health professionals in developing countries are missing out on relevant information about health.” In the 1990s, “there was optimism that, by 2004, all—or nearly all—health professionals in developing countries would have access” to life-saving information. But, 2004 came and went, so sights were set on 2015. “Lack of access to information remains a major barrier to knowledge-based health care in developing countries,” but surely, by 2015, we could “achieve health information for all,” right? “Realistically only scientists at really big, well-funded universities in the developed world have full access to published research,” but, as prices rise even higher, even that may no longer be true. You know there’s a problem when even Harvard, with its $30 billion endowment, claims that research journal “costs are now prohibitive.”

Meanwhile, the journal publishers are raking in billions of dollars, charging institutions up to $35,000 a year per journal and charging individuals online per article. Imagine a family member is diagnosed with a disease, so you go online. You can read all sorts of internet drek, but if you want to see the actual science, it can get expensive—“10, $15, $20, even $30 for an individual view of an article.” And, you aren’t only paying to read the research; you likely paid for the research, too. Tax dollars pour in to fund research, but then you can’t get access to the research you paid for? “If it weren’t so well-established, the traditional model of academic publishing would be considered scandalous.”

“Imagine that your local government built a nice green park—but when you tried to have a picnic, a private firm demanded payment for admission. That’s roughly how it works with scientific research…The journal system, which converts public research dollars into private publishing profits, has long been a source of discontent…” The publishers don’t end up paying anything for the research. They get it for free. They don’t pay the researchers anything. “So we pay for it, and then we have to pay again if we want to read it.” In this way, it can end up with science as a profit system, rather than science as knowledge.

Enter Alexandra Elbakyan, nicknamed by some “the Robin Hood of Science.” It’s a “tale of how one researcher has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world.” 

Named by Nature, perhaps the most prestigious scientific journal in the world, as one of the top ten people who mattered the most in science in 2016, Elbakyan had once been a graduate student in Kazakhstan, “frustrated at being unable to read many scholarly papers because she couldn’t afford them. So she learnt how to circumvent publishers’ paywalls.” Elbakyan then started Sci-Hub, a website originally at sci-hub.io but now at sci-hub.tw “to remove all barriers in the way of science,” by giving away the world’s scientific, medical, and nutrition literature for free.

“What she did is nothing short of awesome,” said one researcher. “Lack of access to the scientific literature is a massive injustice, and she fixed it with one fell swoop.” 

Since I originally recorded the narration for my video, the original sci-hub.io website was shut down, but it can currently be reached at https://sci-hub.st/ and five other domains should that one get yanked, too. You can always see the updated active link list on the Sci-Hub Wikipedia page. Links are provided for educational purposes only—literally!

Isn’t it illegal to download “pirated” papers, though? I explore the controversy in the next installment of this two-part series, Sci-Hub Opens Up a World of Knowledge

My research into Sci-Hub came from a whole webinar I did on research techniques, which was captured into an online Continuing Medical Education course through the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. Check it out at How to Be an Evidence-Based Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner. I’m hoping to have a whole series of courses coming soon, so stay tuned!

KEY TAKEAWAYS

One of the earliest scientific journals is still publishing today, 350 years after its first issue, and is available online and in print for $6,666 a year.
Due to the high price of journals, health professionals in developing countries are denied access to relevant, life-saving information, and, as costs continue to rise, even large, well-funded universities in the western world may be at risk.
Journal publishers make billions of dollars annually, charging institutions up to $35,000 a year per journal and individuals per article.
Studies are often funded by tax dollars, yet the traditional model of academic publishing prevents taxpayers from having access to the research.
Nicknamed the “Robin Hood of Science,” Alexandra Elbakyan made nearly every scientific paper ever published available at no cost to anyone and everyone.
As a graduate student in Kazakhstan, Ms. Elbakyan grew frustrated at being unable to read many papers because of the cost, so she learned how to circumvent paywalls and shared the world’s scientific, medical, and nutrition literature for free through her site Sci-Hub.
My webinar on research techniques is available as an online Continuing Medical Education course through the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. See How to Be an Evidence-Based Lifestyle Medicine Practitioner.

In health,

Michael Greger, M.D.

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