After the music industry and the film industry, the scientific community has also been introduced to the force that is illegal downloading. A scientist from Kazakhstan has taken on the fight against the major academic publishers.

After a short hiatus, the pirate website is back online again. The site allows users to download millions of academic papers and articles for free, and its database continues to expand day by day. After academic publisher Elsevier filed a complaint, a US judge ruled in late 2015 that the website had to go offline. But – as it goes in the world of illegal file-sharing – as long as there’s a demand, the supply is sure to pop up again some place or other.

Actors earn money, but not academics

It’s the latest in a long series of setbacks for the major academic publishers, of which Elsevier has met with the most criticism. The publishing giant earns millions from the sale of scientific knowledge – and shares none of these revenues with the researchers involved.

And this is also the key difference with the music and film industries, wrote Sci-Hub founder Alexandra Elbakyan in September 2015 at the time of the New York lawsuit: actors receive a share of their film’s revenues; musicians get a share of the concert ticket sales. Academics, on the other hand, supply their articles to Elsevier free of charge. Nor are they paid for reviewing their peers’ work. Nevertheless, accessing an individual academic article can easily cost the reader 40 dollars.

Blow for Elsevier

The tremendous popularity of illegal downloading most likely comes as a blow for Elsevier. While on the whole, researchers and students in the Netherlands rarely need to draw their wallets – since the Dutch universities have already paid for them through collective subscriptions – in many other countries, researchers and students pay these expenses out of their own pocket. And this means that costs of writing your bachelor or master thesis can easily run up to hundreds of dollars. And let’s not even start about doctoral research.

The revenue models of publishers like Elsevier have been in the crosshairs for some time now. The European Union and the Dutch government agree that it is absurd that academic knowledge should be so expensive. Last year, the conflict between the Association of Universities in the Netherlands (VSNU) and Elsevier about open access deteriorated into a blinding row. The contract between the Dutch universities and the publisher came close to being torn up altogether.

Legal alternative

But maybe the industry can change tack and weather the storm: after all, the music, film and news industries also ultimately changed course in response to rampant piracy. The result: services like Spotify, Netflix and, in the Netherlands, Blendle.

The folks at Blendle wouldn’t mind working together with academic publishers, says founder Marten Blankesteijn when asked. “Although we’ve never considered it before. But generally, you’ll see piracy becoming less popular once there’s a decent legal alternative. After getting Spotify, I basically stopped downloading music illegally.”