John Maddox Prize Nomination 2020

In 2018, I nominated Alexandra Elbakyan, the creator of Sci-Hub for the John Maddox Prize for Standing up for Science.   The award

Recognises the work of individuals who promote science and evidence, advancing the public discussion around difficult topics despite challenges or hostility.

As you may know, Sci-Hub provides free access to an extremely large corpus of academic journal articles, circumventing traditional publishing paywalls and copyright.

My nomination was an attempt to help recognise Ms Elbakyan’s immense contribution to the opening up of scientific publishing.  Ms Elbakyan made it to the final shortlist, but did not win.   I am nominating her again this year, as I feel a win would be a much needed further boost to the open science movement.

The shortlist for the Maddox prize has not previously been made public.  I feel the nominations themselves deserve a platform, not to mention the shortlisted nominees.  I make a plea to the panel: in keeping with the open science ethos, please consider creating a platform not just for the winners, but for the shortlisted nominees, together with a summary of the panel’s deliberations

The nomination:

Dear Prize Committee, 

I would like to re-nominate Alexandra Elbakyan for the 2020 John Maddox Prize, for her efforts setting up, maintaining and defending Sci-Hub, a website that provides free access to paywalled research. Alexandra Elbakyan may not be a typical candidate for the John Maddox Prize, however, I hope to make a convincing case that she is a worthy one.

I do not know Ms Elbakyan personally, and have been unable to obtain agreement to nominate her.  However, I have sent a message to inform her.

I have addressed the four stated criteria below:

How clearly the individual communicated good science, despite challenges

Access to and dissemination of scientific research has historically been controlled by journals and journal publishers. Subscriptions to these journals are bought by universities, and are made available to the academics within those universities, but not to those without such privileged positions.  While the prevailing publication model may have had some justification in an era of dissemination by physical methods, with the advent of the internet, and essentially free/zero costs of dissemination, it is harder to justify these archaic models.  Furthermore, many of these journals, which were previously affordable, have risen in price, unaffordable even to rich institutions.

The majority of institutions and academics in the developing world/global south are further impoverished by this lack of access. Despite a vocal open-access movement, a significant proportion of the scientific literature remains behind paywalls. Inertia, power dynamics and conflicts of interest have prevented rapid change, and thus an innovative/disruptive solution was necessary – Alexandra Elbakyan provided this solution with Sci-Hub.

The majority of published research is publicly funded, with much of the work in the reviewing process carried out by volunteers, yet remarkably, the public who have funded it are typically unable to access it without charge. The public are hampered in accessing scientific information, preventing learning, innovation, and citizen science.

The ramifications of these barriers to access are innumerable, but to pick just one example doctors, patients, and researchers are often unable to efficiently (or cheaply) gain access to all the potentially relevant literature – they are therefore disempowered in their decision-making.  Likewise, journalists, who especially in an era of increasing ‘fake news’, play an indispensable role in disseminating accurate information, may not have access to original sources.

In the traditional sense, Alexandra Elbakyan has not ‘communicated good science’.  She has instead worked at a higher level and directly facilitated the communication of science via opening access to everyone on the planet who has access to the internet.  It is hard to think of a greater individual contribution to the communication of scientific knowledge.

The nature of the challenge(s) faced by the individual

Unsurprisingly, given the nature of powerful institutions, and the economic incentives to maintain the status quo, Alexandra Elbakyan, has faced very significant challenges in initiating and maintaining Sci-Hub. So far, she has been the subject of two legal cases, both found against her by default.  The first case was brought by Elsevier, and awarded $15 million in damages.  The second judgement, in favour of the American Chemical Society (ACS), of $4.8m, also awarded an injunction “against all parties in active concert or participation with Sci-Hub”. This essentially provides the ACS, and those who wish to align themselves, with the tools to attempt to censor Sci-Hub.

The effect of these judgements is that Alexandra Elbakyan fears that if she travels to Europe or the USA, she may be arrested or extradited on further hacking charges.  Clearly, she would be unable to live or work in the USA due to the financial penalties she faces there.

How well they placed the evidence in the wider debate and engaged others

Sci-Hub places ALL the evidence into the wider debate; and in doing so, it brings the evidence to the people, and brings previously disenfranchised people to the debate.

As of March 2017, Sci-Hub’s database contains 68.9% of the 81.6 million scholarly articles registered with Crossref and 85.1% of articles published in toll-access journals.

Sci-Hub is now internationally known as the best way for those without privileged access to read scientific papers.  It is even used by those with access, as it often provides the fastest method of downloading papers. Even for members of Western universities, Sci-Hub often provides a better level of access than their institutional subscriptions. According to an article in eLifeSciences, “For toll access articles, we find that Sci-Hub provides greater coverage than the University of Pennsylvania, a major research university in the United States”.

According to an article in Science “Over the 6 months leading up to March [2016], Sci-Hub served up 28 million documents. More than 2.6 million download requests came from Iran, 3.4 million from India, and 4.4 million from China”.  Even this old data demonstrates both the depth and breadth of the reach and influence of Sci-Hub and how it’s providing access for exactly the people it was designed to help.

Their level of influence on the public debate

Beyond providing access to the disenfranchised, Sci-Hub’s success has driven public debate as to the ethics of traditional subscription-model publishers as well as to how to achieve a more equitable system. The concrete and visible action of actually providing a working alternative, has had a significant effect on driving the debate out of ivory towers into a more public forum.  Sci-Hub has acted as an advocacy tool for open access.  Barriers are often invisible to those for whom they are not a problem; by creating a system without barriers, Sci-Hub has helped delineate and highlight these barriers.

I write having spent years working in Ecuador, where my students worked without the benefit of privileged levels of access to public research. I saw directly how a lack of access affected every one of my students.  And having introduced my students to Sci-Hub, I see how it enriched their scientific lives, and unlocked their potential – helping them to find postgraduate positions in prestigious European universities.

Article 27 of the UN Convention on Human Rights, cited by Ms Elbakyan, states that “Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community, to enjoy the arts and to share in scientific advancement and its benefits.”  This statement implicitly acknowledges that science and scientific advancement is not an individual pursuit, it is a societal activity. Yet right now, while some of us are standing on the shoulders of giants, others are scrabbling at their shoelaces.

Ms Elbakyan’s activism has included actions that are considered by some to be illegal. Those with established financial interests in academic publishing have been particularly vocal in their opposition.  I would like to draw a parallel here with the Suffragette movement, who faced imprisonment for acting according to their values.  The cause of the Suffragettes is now almost universally lauded, illustrating how the law shifts as society changes.  Thus I would encourage the panel to put aside the question of legality, and consider the value and wider impact of Ms Elbakyan’s actions.  These actions, along with those of other advocates of open science, have arguably resulted in a paradigm shift in thinking about equality of access to science.  The movement has been so successful that even dominant academic publishers have been forced to change their own models in fear of being left behind, even if they have not changed their underlying philosophy.

Alexandra Elbakyan is an activist, acknowledged by Nature in 2016 (alongside 2018’s co-winner Terry Hughes), who has risked her liberty to confront a system that impoverishes humanity. Recognition is essential to activists, not only to further their work, but also to protect them for persecution and prosecution. I hope that you’ll consider extending this recognition to a true revolutionary.

Yours sincerely,

Dr Fergus Kane


4 thoughts on “John Maddox Prize Nomination 2020”

  1. How can we support the nomination?
    I am sure thousands of scientists around the world would do it happily.

    1. I don’t know if it makes a difference but I’m sure a supporting email to sense about science can’t hurt.

      Personal anecdotes about the importance of sci hub may also be useful. We have some good research, so the anecdotes would illustrate it.

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