Elsevier’s been in the news lately for more than just its offer to Wikipedia. Torrentfreak reports that it recently filed suit against a pair of web sites that it claims host “millions of pirated scientific articles.” While the court considered an injunction, the operator of one of the web sites responded.

In her letter (PDF), Alexandra Elbakyan explains that as a poor student in Kazakhstan, she simply couldn’t afford to pay $32 for each of the hundreds of papers she needed, so she pirated them. She founded her website with the aim of helping out others in the same situation, and they are reportedly very popular in developing nations.

Elbakyan points out that academic researchers have to sign their copyright over to Elsevier in order to be published, and they don’t get any money from Elsevier out if it. But they have to be published in order to maintain their academic standing, so they frequently don’t have a lot of choice.

We’ve certainly carried plenty of stories about academics upset by Elsevier’s practices, and Elbakyan’s letter is full of high-minded ideals. Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely to help her—she is violating Elsevier’s copyright, after all. And whether Elsevier is morally right or not, there is little doubt that they’ve got the law on their side.


  1. Ms. Elbakyan’s observation that “publish or perish” in academia drives authors to surrender their copyrights when they might not otherwise do so is an apt one. Although it doesn’t justify her infringement, it does raise some interesting questions about the relationship between commercial publishers and higher education. Who is getting short changed?
    Academic publishers usually get both the content and the peer review of that content for free because of the pressure on researchers to have their research work and service to their discipline validated. Then, the institutions that drive this uncompensated authoring turn around and purchase the journals through their libraries.
    Sounds a bit inbred, doesn’t it?
    Authors get validation which may translate to better compensation, prestige, etc. Academic publishers get salable content at below market prices. Colleges and universities get help in sorting out and motivating their faculties. Students get higher tuition and more debt.

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