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File Sharing and the Open Access Debate

Graduate student Alexandra Elbakyan is thought to be hiding out à la Edward Snowden in Russia after providing free online access to a large number of scientific papers, the New York Times reports.

An injunction was filed against Elbakyan's file-sharing site Sci-Hub last fall after journal publisher Elsevier sued her.

Elbakyan tells the Times that she started the site for both practical and philosophical reasons — practical in that she needed access to a number of papers for her own research and philosophical in that she says pay walls inhibit the flow of information.

Legal access to a single journal article can run about $30, if the individual or that person's institution doesn't have subscribe to that journal, an amount the Times notes that can quickly add up.

"It's as if somehow stealing content is justifiable if it's seen as expensive, and I find that surprising," Elsevier's Alicia Wise tells the Times. "It's not as if you'd walk into a grocery store and feel vindicated about stealing an organic chocolate bar as long as you left the Kit Kat bar on the shelf."

Elsevier and other journals argue that they act as curators of research papers, as well as edit and archive them.

Still there are more and more calls for open access — legal access — to research papers as a number of funding agencies now require that researchers release their findings within a year to the public.

"Everyone has the right to freely share in scientific advancement and its benefits," Elbakyan argues.