Transcript of the TIC Talk du Laboratoire LIG - Ep. 17

This is the transcript of the TIC Talk du Laboratoire LIG podcast recording with Alexandra Elbakyan for the 17th episode. Serguei Grudinin was doing the live translation from russian to english. Alexandra Elbakyan revised the transcription. We use the following conventions:

1 - (FP) - Hi everyone, I am very happy to introduce you Alexandra Elbakyan and Serguei Grudinin that will help us with the translation. Alexandra Hello.

2 - (AE) - Yes, Hi.

3 - (FP) - So Alexandra you were on the Nature list of the ten people that matters in research in 2016 because you founded Sci-Hub. Can you describe us what Sci-Hub is in a few words?

4 - (AE) - First of all I don't think that the value of Sci-Hub should be related with the fact that it was in the list of Nature in 2016.

5 - (FP) - What do you mean by that?

6 - (AE) - The value of the project itself. How people consider the project, and how do they respect the project.

7 - (FP) - So what do you mean? You mean they were not attracted by the ideas of the project, and more by the publicity around it? Is that you are talking about?

8 - (AE) - No this is not what I am saying about. I mean that the most valuable thing of Sci-Hub is not that it has been on some Nature list.

9 - (FP) - It was just to present you to the audience, to give an idea because, ok ... lets go like this.

10 - (AE) - The question was why would you start with particular fact? In my opinion you should not.

11 - (FP) - Because I want to stress the importance of the project, maybe some people don't know Sci-Hub. If you like I am just presenting...

12 - (AE) - Alexandra wants to stress that the importance of the project shouldn't be defined or shouldn't be related to any Nature list.

13 - (FP) - Ok lets starts again. Lets start with the basic presentation, what is the size of the project...

14 - (AE) - No-no-no, I have just commented on this fact so we shouldhn't stop we shoud continue. I just expressed my opinion about this.

15 - (FP) - Can you give us some statistics on the importance of Sci Hub today. I mean, in a basic day how many articles are downloaded? to have idea, to have a flavor of what is going on.

16 - (AE) - On average it is about half a million of visitors per day. And about 2 to 3 millions articles being downloaded.

17 - (FP) - Do you have an idea of the sociology of the people that are using Sci Hub? Are they specifics in some region of the earth? Or is it completely widespread?

18 - (AE) - It is better to say that there are no particularities geographically. For example more populated countries are more presented in Sci-Hub statistics. But if we consider the percentage of scientific people, because different countries have a different percentage of scientists, then we will have different slightly different statistics for different countries. But I haven't counted it precisely.

19 - (FP) - What I had in mind is that, for instance, in Europe, and I thing it is the same in the US, you have to do technical tricks to go to Sci-Hub. Because the DNS server, ok, the internet providers doesn't direct you to Sci-Hub, because it is forbidden. So I was wondering whether this has an effect or not? Or you simply don't see it because people who are going to Sci-Hub knows how to get around those kind of technical problems.

20 - (AE) - As far as I know in the USA Sci-Hub is not being blocked. This exists in some of european countries and holds in Russia. However, in the US it is not blocked on the global scale, but it is sometimes it is blocked by the universities where scientific work. For example if Sci-Hub is blocked in a country there will be another adress which is not blocked. I have been looking if the amount of visitors and users decreased after it started to be blocked. Well, you have to look at it individually, independently. I haven't looked at it but I should. The biggest number of users to SciHub is provided by China. Nonetheless, I constantly receive messages saying that Sci-Hub is blocked in China and the same situation about american universities. So Sci-Hub is blocked in the universities but not in the country.

21 - (FP) - If we get back in time when you started this project it was very small, because obvioulsy it was maybe just you sending artiicle by mail or things like that, and gradually it became what it is today. As you said it is a large political problems for many countries who have different policies regarding Sci-Hub. If we get back in time, how have you done this buildup because I imagine that at the start you just had only you just had your personal computer, then you had to have a bigger and bigger infrastructure. Can you tell us this story and give us , personal computer to todays situation what are the landmarks, the very important points in the trajectory?

22 - (AE) - There was a period when I did everything manually sending article by hand but at the time it was not yet the Sci-Hub project. Then I have got an idea that this can be automated and it will possible to create a web site a web resource that will automatically open the articles. There was an interesting story: right before I got this idea I have had a dream about this. So the dream was that I am inside the russian academy of science, and it was absolutely dark on all the floors, there was no light. People were slipping in all different postures on sofas and chairs. And in my dream I switched all the light, and the light all the 12 floors of the building, and in my dream I saw that people were very happy about this fact. I had this dream right before I started this website. From the technical point of view to write the source code and upload it to a web server it took me about three days. At the very beginning it was not a personnal computer, it was a web hosting, it was a free web hosting. After that I moved to a paid hosting, I don't remember when exactly. Then I have got a dedicated web server, Alexandra rented it from a company. In 2013 Sci-Hub got its personal hardware to keep, to store the articles. I also remember that during the time I collected donations for this hardware, I was able to collect it rather quickly it was several thousands dollars.

23 -(FP) - A related question that I have is how did you make the publicity for Sci-Hub. I can imagine that at the begining few people were aware of Sci-Hub. Have you used social medias or people talking around them. I mean How the growth of the users of Sci-Hub happened. Have you an idea, or have you just reacted to the rise of the number of people trying to dowload things and step by step you have bigger and bigger hardware or do you do proactive things, I don't know have publicity policy to make Sci-Hub more known?

24 -(AE)- At the very begining when I just started the project I posted an ad in an internet forum. It was a scientific forum specifically dedicated to the scientist that asked each other to share the scientific articles. This forum had already the right audience. I remember sending personal invitations, personnal letters to the scientists about the existence of such a site. Then I have checked and I sent about seven hundreds of personal messages via the forum. It became very popular, rapidly. Then I have visited other forums, for example I remember visiting chemical forums such as ChemPort. I sent a message to the moderator of this forum and the moderator created a topic about Sci-Hub. Next people learned themselves about the web service on the forum named Tu-Board, it was computer forum. They also had a section dedicated to how to get scientific articles from closed access. And they put there Sci-Hub and LibGenon their website. At begining it was only russian speaking forums. And this led to a rather large audience at the very beginning.

25 - (FP) - You started with a russian speaking audience but I have another question regarding the initial user of Sci-Hub was it at the beginning, I can imagine it was especially directed to computer science? Or was it from the early beginning opened to all kind of science, I mean chemistry, medicine, physics or have you expanded the range of Sci-Hub step by step by people connecting and say and helping you to widen the scope of the articles you publish?

26 - (AE) - Sci-Hub has a different idea a different structure. It is not like the users upload specific articles its not the idea of Sci-Hub. It is not the users that upload the files.

27 - (FP) - My question was about the scientific fields. At the beginning were you covering every scientific fields or especially computer science then it became larger?

28 - (AE) - The scientific base of Sci-Hub is not extended by the users who visit the website. Regarding the question about the scientific fields, Sci-Hub works as follows: each donwloads the papers used in the university libraries. And naturally university libraries very often have all the coverage of scientific fields. I want to add that at the very begining when the Sci-Hub started it had four universities with their libraries connected: MIT, Cornell and Caltech and I don't remember exactly. It has started from the forum of molecular biologists. And it became very usefull right from the very beginning for the molecular biologists. MIT is a technical university, but still at the very begining the scope was very broad.

29 - (FP) - Another question I have concerning the starting of this project obviously you knew it was not, you had to infringe on copyright laws somewhere. How did you decide to break those rules, where did you find the courage because of course you... I imagine that you wil maybe have trouble in the future? Was your dream powerfull enough to overcome all those coming difficulties? How did it play out?

30 - (AE) - In my personnal environment the copyright was never considered to be some kind of law that should be respected.

31 - (FP) - Yes but thats an intellectual idea that I maybe share, but there is another step when you do concrete things that can be hard for you. Because ok you can have this idea but when you something concrete and maybe you have to go to courts etc. It is another level.

32 - (AE) - We had torrents and etc. everywhere, RuTracker for example so the copyright was not considered seriously.

33 - (FP) - Regading that you have, I don't know maybe have three kinds of people, three kinds of reactions towards Sci-Hub, you have people who admire the project, because they think that information should be free, you have lets say haters who are afraid to lose a lot of money because of copyright disappearing in practice, and maybe you have silent users who don't say anything, and just use Sci-Hub without nor thank you nor threats. What are the respective level of those three kinds of people? Do you have a lot of help, a lot of donation or or do you have a lot of negative reaction, or most of people just don't react and use Sci-Hub? How would you describe the situation?

34 - (AE) - What do you precisely mean because among the users of Sci-Hub everybody supports the project and many of them donate to the project? And some supporters is saying thank you, and it's been like this from the very beginning. Concerning the publishers they are independent from the users, and they try to go to courts. Here probably there is a problem with the people that are not supporting the project silently, but they silently prevent the progress of the project. They are silent so we cannot identify them, because they don't say anything.

35 - (FP) - And what do you mean by silently harming the project? In what sense? They are puting legislation in order to make it more difficult? Or are they doing denial of service attack, or things like that, that are more concrete?

36 - (AE) - Concerning the legislation it is not silently because it goes to the court. What I mean, for example, roughly all the russian scientists endorse Sci-Hub, but thats it and it does not go any further because in principle the topic could be raised to officially support the project. Somehow somewhere the very top level of the russian scientific-administrative hierarchy, it hits some obstacles if you understand what I mean.

37 - (FP) - So do you mean, when you consider individuals people are overly supportive of the project, and the bigger you have institution, the larger the institution are, the less they are supportive of the project? Is that correct? You can go to the university, to the federation of the universities, to the country, you have bigger and bigger institutions.

38 - (AE) - No I know for sure that for example in MSU (top university in Russia) there are many Sci-Hub users. I know this exactly.

39 - (FP) - Yes but what I mean is that: people may, from an individual point of view, they are going to use Sci-Hub, but when they put their jacket of, I don't know, president of the university they cannot say it. Because they are president of the university and so they have to have a public discourse that is different. And the larger the institution you represent, maybe, the most against the project Sci-Hub they are. Was it what you are describing?

40 - (AE) - No I haven't said anything about the relation between the size of an institution and the support of Sci-Hub.

41 - (FP) - I thought it was that you were describing by the "silent opposition".

42 - (AE) - No I didn't mean this precisely but these things are very difficult to describe even in russian, and using the translation it is even more difficult.

43 - (FP) - Since you have started this project scientific communication has evolved a lot. And we can see this with the COVID crisis, because I don't you there is this statistics More than 60 000 scientific papers have been published, but not peer reviewed on this disease simply because there is no longer time. You have to go fast. What is your view on the evolution of scientific communication during those last years, in which you were very active in transforming the landscape of scientific communication. What do you think? Are things going better, from your point of view? Or are other things going worse? What are your impression on this subject?

44 - (AE) - I need to remark that the open science has been evolved since de the nineties, and it seems like there is a progress every year. However, 1990-2011 it has been more than 20 years passed but still the majority of scientific articles were not open source in the 2011 when the Sci-Hub appeared. They have been doing it progressively from year to year there have been seamingly a progress but still at the moment of starting Sci-Hub in 2011 majority of the papers were not open.

45 - (FP) - You have sites like ArXiV in which more and more people put their paper, a first version maybe, but before publication, there is huge movement of open publication. What do you think about it? How do you see it ?

46 - (AE) - I have just talked of this. If you look at the date of ArXiV creation it is 1991 and Sci-Hub appeared in 2011, so it is 20 years of difference.

47 - (FP) - Yes but there is something different. It is that, Ok, If I consider my case in 1990 I was not puting my articles on ArXiV, whereas today every single time that I am writing an article I put it first on ArXiV. I mean in the behavior of scientists there was a huge evolution.

48 - (AE) - Perhaps. To estimate it for 2020 we need to conduct a study.

49 - (FP) - Do you have ideas to expand Sci-Hub to add new features. Because right now what you are doing is to make available already published papers. Do you want to go beyond that or just stay in this field or work with ArXiv to help open science publication? Do you have projects in this direction or not?

50 - (AE) - No I don't think. I think Sci-Hub should remain as Sci-Hub. It should'nt be turned in something else.

51 - (FP) - Do you envision evolution, this time from a practical point view. Because I imagine that you have a big SQL database. Are you considering using new cryptographic propositions like Interplanetary File System to implement your database? or is it ok for you? Do you envision technical evolutions?

52 - (AE) - First of all Sci-Hub doesn't use MySQL, well to be precise there is such a database but it is auxiliary for faster search. For example to open a scientific article by its name. From the very beginning it was organised not with SQL but as a memory data storage Redis. At the beginning it was Memcached and then it moved to Redis, but this is nearly the same. In Redis there is a huge number of DOI's about 80 millions and they are all stored in memory. So there is no MySQL in there.

53 - (FP) - I was not talking about MySQL but SQL in general. But ok, maybe my point is...

54 - (AE) - I have commented about SQL. Concerning the future and IPFS, do you understand that this new worldwide file system is new and very popular technology, just as two years ago we had the very popular blockchain technology? It is a hype. You are asking about things which are very hype now. It doesn't make sense.

55 - (FP)- I think it make sense, because. Maybe not it is just an example but if you want to have a stable version you need to have your database stored somewhere, and due to the technical and legal difficulties maybe you can think at other solutions than today's solutions. Or you don't need, I don't know? Ok my question is I guess: suppose you cannot work on Sci-Hub. What happens? The site disappears or not ? Does the information disappear or not ? Maybe you can decentralized the knowledge, I don't know? It is a question. But this question is legitimate.

56 - (AE) Don't you know that since several years, all the Sci-Hub database has been released using the torrents? And torrent is a decentralized technology, please!

57 - (FP) - Yes I know but I didn't knew that.

58 - (AE) - So what is the question then? It is already decentralized.

59 - (FP) - I was not aware about that. That is why I was asking the question I was thinking at a centralized database.

60 - (AE) - At the same time there is torrent part and there is a centralized part. In parallel there are torrents and the centralized Sci-Hub with several mirrors. I don't understand why people are so stubborn about IPFS. For me it looks very stupid.

61 - (FP) - Maybe because it is a step towards virtualization in the following sense. Right now what we have is we can communicate information very easily but there is...

62 - (AE) - Are we talking about Sci-Hub or IPFS?!

63 - (FP) - I am talking in general about our digital society and how information moves around in the internet. The thing is that...

64 - (AE) - So this is great but you invited me to talk about Sci-Hub

65 - (FP) - Yes but this is linked to Sci-Hub.

66 - (AE) - Then anything can be linked to Sci-Hub.

67 - (FP) - No because Sci-Hub is a lot of information, and of course, it is practical case in which you would like to have an idea, or an information that you cannot destroy. Because a lot of people doesnt want Sci-Hub to work.

68 - (AE) - Well, doesn't it matteer that Sci-Hub has been working several years and nobody could destroy it, if you think that it is very easy to destroy ?! Doesn't it matter? Does it means nothing?

69 - (FP) - Yes it is an indicator that it works well. But, ok, I imagine that it is a race...

70 - (AE) - So the Sci-Hub works as a centralised nobody could destroy it and nobody has destroyed it. Doesn't it trigger any thoughts?

71 - (FP) - Excuse me?

72 - (AE) - You sound like Sci-Hub has just appeared five days ago and you wan to decide how it should work

73 - (FP) - No-no-no I am talking about the future, and of course security...

74 - (AE) - Why are you talking about the future of Sci-Hub because it was not you who created it?

75 - (FP) - Because I have questions about it, and how, ok, I am not , I am trying to imagine how you can...

76 - (AE) - Lets talk about the present because past is already passed and the future has not yet come. Lets talk about the current stage.

77 - (FP) - Ok, basically on Sci-Hub right now you don't have any, lets say, formal money to finance it. You don't have advertisment or anything like that. You are just living by people helping you financially, right?

78 - (AE) - Yes.

79 - (FP)- Is it complex because of the legal issues, and, because it is also linked to the safety of Sci-Hub. If you cannot support it from a financial point of view it does no longer exists. So it is another problem you have to deal day after day I can imagine. Do you want to talk about it ?

80 - (AE)- Yes of course since it is illegal project it is more difficult to collect money compared to legal project. Is that you question or you wanted to ask something different?

81 - (FP) - I guess my question was: Ok do you use, Ok I don't want to go specifically into details. I don't know, isn't this situation stressful because you don't have certainties regarding, I don't know, middle term evolution. I mean, its quite strange for me because you need to have a very big material infrastructure to make it work, because it is half a million people a day. So it is a big infrastructure and at the same time you have very powerful opponents, and so for me it is a mystery how you make it work. So can you tell us some words...for instance do you have to move your servers country to country or not?

82 - (AE) - Alexandra says it is about several thousands dollar in a month, it is not such big money. And physically I don't need to move data from one country to other country. I only change the adresses, internet adresses.

83 - (FP) - Do you expect your customers to follow you or do you have a way to advertise this? Or you expect the people who are using Sci-Hub technically savy enough to find by themselves when you have to change an adress. How do you cope wiith this?

84 - (AE) - Both options. Both, I spread the new adresses using different channels, and people can find the new adresses themselves.

85 - (FP) - It must take a lot of energy to work on a project like this. Do you do something else or is it a 24/7 job for you? Do you have other projects?

86 - (AE) - Of course not (not a 24/7 job I mean). I have been studying in three different masters programs and nowadays I am studying in a Ph.D. program. Before I have been also working as a programmer, free lancer programmer.

87 - (FP) - Just to have an idea, how do you quantify the amount of work? Is it one hour a day, one hour a week, or ten hours ?

88 - (AE) - In no way. I don't count this, I do not note the time at all.

89 - (FP) - If you do a Ph.D. it is not much than few hours a day, right? Less?

90 - (AE) This very much depends on many factors on a person I don't know, it is very subjective.

91 - (FP) - Is your Ph.D. anyway linked to the project?

92 - (AE)- Yes my phd is linked to the subject. I study open science (here interruption with question 88. Alexandra continues with answer started in 90). Well... It may seem difficult for a person who doesn't have any idea how it works, it doesn't mean it will be the same for another person

93 - (FP) - Can you expend on what you are doing on your Ph. D. and how is it linked, maybe ... ?

94 - (AE) - No I don't want.

95 - (FP) - Ok, so do you want to adress something wa have not talked about, about Sic-Hub, because you want to be focused on this subject? Do you think there is something important we have not mentionne?

96 - (AE) - What do you mean?

97 - (FP) - Is there an important aspect of Sci-Hub that we have not mentionned during this talk that you would like to talk about?

98 - (AE) -In Sci-Hub everything is important. It is of course not possible to cover everything one hour interview.

99 - (FP) - Yes I guess, Yea but as a closing statement...

100 - (AE) - Usually I don't want to add anything.

101 - (FP) - Ok, thank you for your participation, I hope everyone will enjoy,bye.

102 - (AE) - Bye.