Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies facilitate freedom of scientific information – but what about copyright?


An interesting illegal academic research hub getting headlines today shows some of the controversy around using blockchain-oriented cryptocurrencies for black market operations.


This one involves a Kazakh scientist and student named Alexandra Elbakyan and her single-handed end run around academic and scientific journals by setting up a dark web project known as Sci-Hub.


“Alexandra Elbakyan, a 31-year-old freelance coder, neurobiologist and phylologist, is running a database of over 80 million articles from academic journals that are normally available only through subscriptions,” writes Anna Baydakova today at Coindesk. “What started out of frustration when she was a graduate student became a free research service funded only through donations. For most people in the world, bitcoin is the only way to support Elbakyan’s work.”


Analysts looking at Sci-Hub’s history agree that it is technically illegal, but many argue that part of the reason the ad-hoc platform deserves leniency is the intention behind Elbakyan ‘s effort.


Citing the high cost of academic research and logistical problems accessing research data, Elbakyan talks about how broadening access to this kind of research opens up scientific progress potential in a more egalitarian way.


But does that translate to something that should be legal and isn’t?


Along the way, Elbakyan lost the ability to leverage US-based tools like Cloudflare and later, PayPal, as stakeholders recognized existing copyright issues and acted accordingly.


Just how careful academics should be about using Sci-Hub has become a topic of concern in recent weeks, with many questioning whether sharing links to Sci-Hub could in itself be considered illegal,” writes Lindsay McKenzie at Inside Higher Ed, citing remarks by several experts in explicating how this kind of law works. “In instances of academics linking to Sci-Hub, it is more likely to be a question of contributory infringement than vicarious infringement, said Hardy. So could linking to Sci-Hub be considered contributory infringement?”


However, with Sci-Hub still going strong, the entire thing seems to be shunted into the court of public opinion. If, as societies, we believe in condoning Sci-Hub, then we have to reorder the law, or stand in that strange cognitive dissonance where an illegal operation has become a public good.