Blackballed by PayPal, Scientific-Paper Pirate Takes Bitcoin Donations

Blackballed by PayPal, Scientific-Paper Pirate Takes Bitcoin Donations

Alexandra Elbakyan at a conference at Harvard in 2010. (Apneet Jolly/Wikimedia Commons, modified using PhotoMosh)

A quiet rebellion against copyright is being waged on a single website by a freelance coder, using cryptocurrency where PayPal won’t do.

as a has been used by outlaws of all sorts, but this time the outlaw is a young scientist from Kazakhstan breaking through the paywalls of academic journals. 

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. 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. 

The website, called Sci-Hub, has been sued by two science publishing houses and reportedly by the U.S. Department of Justice for possible espionage on behalf of Russian intelligence. (Elbakyan said she never got contacted by the U.S. authorities about it.) This effectively cut Elbakyan off the mainstream financial services in the West. 

Elbakyan told CoinDesk the website sees about 600,000 visits each day. Even for those researchers who have access to subscriptions via universities, Sci-Hub turns out to be the most convenient option to get content for their research, she said.

But her struggles underscore one of the fundamental value propositions of cryptocurrency: When people can’t use the mainstream payment ralis, crypto offers an alternative. It’s hardly a bellwether of a broad adoption coming, but it is “a good example of bitcoin as a niche payments rail,” economist John Paul Koning told CoinDesk. 

“For most purposes, people prefer to use regular fiat payments because they are easy,” said Koning, a . “But when they get locked out, either because they are engaging in illegal activities or legal ones that are deemed socially unacceptable, bitcoin becomes an option. People who have been locked out of these conventional systems are slowly discovering that bitcoin can serve them.”

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