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    PayPal-Less Journal Pirate Sci-Hub Seeks Funds via Alipay

    The site is beset by legal challenges from publishers who say it violates their copyrights.

    Sci-Hub, the scourge of academic publishers worldwide for allowing users to bypass their paywalls and download scientific papers for free, is increasingly receiving financial support from China, where the site is popular in part because universities don’t always subscribe to foreign journals.

    Alexandra Elbakyan, a Kazakh scientist and the founder of Sci-Hub, told Sixth Tone in an email that last week she set up an account on Alipay, one of the most widely used online payment services in China, upon a Sci-Hub user’s request.

    “I do not want to disclose the exact amount yet,” she said when asked how much Chinese currency she had received. “But [it’s] a lot more than I expected!”

    Sci-Hub, founded in 2011, became popular in China in 2013, Elbakyan said, with currently over 1 million users visiting the site from the country every month.

    The goal of Sci-Hub, according to its website, is to “make scientific knowledge accessible to everyone — free of charge, in any place of the world.” This has brought Elbakyan many supporters who argue academic publishers profit exorbitantly from selling research funded by public money.

    But Sci-Hub has also been hit with copyright infringement lawsuits, losing cases to Dutch academic publishing giant Elsevier and the American Chemical Society in 2017 in which it had to pay millions of dollars in fines. The two companies also teamed up with another publisher, Wiley India, requesting Indian internet providers block Sci-Hub. The court in India has yet to issue a ruling.

    Amid its legal troubles, Sci-Hub was also deplatformed by Twitter in February, as well as by payment service PayPal, which the site used for donations in its early years. Before the Alipay account, the only way to donate money was through cryptocurrencies, exchanges of which are banned in China.

    Sci-Hub’s newly opened Alipay account was met with cheers of “Let’s donate!” on microblogging site Weibo, where a medical news outlet with more than 2 million followers was among the accounts to announce the news.

    Shen, a master’s student at the University of Chinese Academy of Sciences, gave 100 yuan ($15) to Sci-Hub when he learned of the donation option. He wanted to join forces to “remove barriers in the way of science,” he said, quoting Sci-Hub’s mission statement.

    “Knowledge belongs to all humankind and should be open to all,” he told Sixth Tone. “Also, most research is funded by taxes, so it shouldn’t become a profit-making tool.”

    Xiang, a PhD student at a university in the eastern Jiangsu province, told Sixth Tone he often uses Sci-Hub because his school does not subscribe to many expensive foreign journals. Without the site, he’d have to buy the papers he’s interested in himself, which can be costly. Elsevier, for example, charges readers an average of $31.50 per paper for access.

    Chinese university libraries struggling to pay journal subscription fees has been an issue for years. Already in 2010, executives from 33 libraries and institutions across China wrote an open letter complaining about rising subscription prices set by major publishers like Elsevier. “This has led some libraries to start cutting back on the number of full-text database subscriptions for scientific journals,” they said. The largest domestic database of journals, known as CNKI or Zhiwang, has also been involved in price disputes with Chinese universities.

    Sci-Hub, meanwhile, presents a convenient alternative. “Sci-Hub has a full range of papers,” Xiang said. “Out of 100 papers, maybe only about three or four aren’t available on the website.”

    Editor: Kevin Schoenmakers.

    (Header image: The homepage of Sci-Hub. Sixth Tone)