I don’t think there’s much more to say about Aaron Swartz. I didn’t know him personally but like many others I am a beneficiary of the work he did. And I have agreed for much of my life as an academic with the thinking that led him to his fateful act in a closet at MIT. Most centrally, that there are several ethical imperatives that should make everything that JSTOR (or any comparable bundling of scholarly publication) holds freely available to everyone: much of that work was underwritten directly or indirectly by public funds, the transformative impact of open-access on inequality is already well-documented, and it’s in keeping with the obligations and values that scholars allege to be central to their work.

Blame is coming down heavy on MIT and JSTOR, both of which were at pains to distance themselves from the legal persecution of Swartz even before news of his suicide broke, particularly JSTOR, which very early on asked that Swartz not be prosecuted. Blame is coming down even more heavily, as it should, on federal prosecutors who have been spewing a load of spurious garbage about the case for over a year. They had discretion and they abused it greviously in an era when vast webs of destructive and criminal activities have been discretionarily ignored if they stem from powerful men and powerful institutions. They chose to be Inspector Javert, chasing down Swartz over a loaf of bread.

But if we’re talking blame, then there’s a diffuse blame that ought to be conferred. In a way, it’s odd that MIT should have been the bagman for the ancien regime: its online presence and institutional thinking about digitization has otherwise been quite forward-thinking in many respects. If MIT allowed itself to be used by federal prosecutors looking to put an intellectual property head on a pike, that is less an extraordinary gesture by MIT and more a reflection of the academic default.

I’ve been frustrated for years, like other scholars and faculty who take an interest in these issues, at the remarkable lassitude of academia as a whole towards publication, intellectual property and digitization. Faculty who tell me passionately about their commitment to social justice either are indifferent to these concerns or are sometimes supportive of the old order. They defend the ghastly proposition that universities (and governments) should continue to subsidize the production of scholarship that is then donated to for-profit publishers who then charge high prices to loan that work back to the institutions that subsidized its creation, and the corollary, demanded by those publishers, that the circulation of such work should be limited to those who pay those prices. Print was expensive, print was specialized, and back in the age of print, what choice did we have? We have a choice now. Everything, everything, about the production of scholarship can be supported by consortial funds within academia. The major added value is provided by scholars, again largely for free, in the work of peer review. We could put the publishers who refuse to be partners in an open world of inquiry out of business tomorrow, and the only cost to academics would be the loss of some names for journals. Every journal we have can just have another name and be essentially the same thing. Every intellectual, every academic, every reader, every curious mind that wants to read scholarly work could be reading it tomorrow if they had access to a basic Internet connection, wherever they are in the world. Which is what we say we want.

I once had a colleague tell me a decade ago that this shift wouldn’t be a positive development because there’s a digital divide, that not everyone has access to digital devices, especially in the developing world. I asked this colleague, whose work is focused on the U.S., if she knew anything about the costs and problems that print imposed on libraries and archives and universities around the world, and of course she didn’t. Digitized scholarship can’t be lost or stolen the way that print can be, it doesn’t have to be mailed, it doesn’t have to have physical storage, it can’t be eaten by termites, it can’t get mold on it. If it were freed from the grasp of the publishers who charge insane prices for it, it could be disseminated for comparatively small costs to any institution or reader who wants access. Collections can be uniformly large everywhere that there’s a connection: what I can read and research, a colleague in Nairobi or Beijing or Moscow or Sao Paulo can read and research, unless their government (or mine) interferes. That simply couldn’t be in the age of print. Collections can support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous readers rather than just the one who has something checked out. I love the materiality of books, too, but on these kinds of issues, there’s no comparison. And no justification.

The major thing that stands in the way of the potentiality of this change is the passivity of scholars themselves. Aaron Swartz’s action, and its consequences, had as much to do with that generalized indifference as it did with any specific institution or organization. Not all culture needs to be open, and not all intellectual property claims are spurious. But scholarship should be and could be different, and has a claim to difference deep in its alleged values. There should be nothing that stops us from achieving the simplest thing that Swartz was asking of us, right now, in memory of him.

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6 Responses to Now

  1. thm says:

    My perspective on open access is in physics, which as a field is doing relatively well, largely on account of the ArXiv pre-print system. Fortunately, the highest-prestige physics journals are the ones published by the American Physical Society, which has taken several steps towards openness (free access for public libraries and high schools, options for CC-BY publishing, and accepts ArXiv).

    By contrast, the American Chemical Society journals are just as closed as the for-profit journals, and my understanding is that as long as there’s a chemical industry that’s willing to pay for access to ACS journals, it’s going to stay that way.

    I think what keeps many of the for-profit journals going is a sort of co-dependent feedback loop with marginal researchers: Quite a few, e.g. El*****r journals (in physics, at least) have very low standards for what they will accept, and often have no page charges. This makes them very attractive for researchers who have limited budgets and marginal results but who still need to produce publications. Of course, a single one of these journals costs a University roughly the same as the entire catalog of APS journals (on the order of $20000/year). The marginal researchers will continue to referee for, and cite, and defend their institution’s subscription to these journals.

    I don’t want to deride the link between publishing and the progress of scientific careers, because publishing is how the whole collaborative enterprise moves forward. And there also does need to be a place for marginal experimental results, which could become more important in light of future work. So I would like to see the (non-profit) professional societies expand their publishing catalog and create new lower-tier journals, and create a more open and less burdensome outlet for marginal research.

  2. David Blum says:

    Dr. Burke, you already have tenure and don’t have to worry about the system in place.
    We cannot rely upon systems like ArXiv because it is already populated by tenured professors.

    PhD students entering the system cannot suddenly switch gears and go for the open source journals without risking their economic interests. It will take tenured professors and tenure committees who are willing to say that their own system doesn’t matter for things to change. Would you be willing to lose your tenure and offer more opportunities to an up and coming PhD, they could really use the job. That would be social justice.

    For libraries, where do they stand if all information is suddenly made available without restriction. There would be many college presidents who can look at their budget, see that databases cost nothing, and start cutting funding from development and personnel.

    You can talk about social justice, but sometimes the cure is worse than the disease.

  3. Timothy Burke says:

    David, first off, I hope it’s clear that I’m talking about an institution-level commitment. I think there are already quite a few individuals who have moved towards open-access as an expression of their personal convictions. To really change things, institutions will have to do something. So I quite understand pre-tenure faculty sticking with what they think will get them tenure, and I’d advise them all to do so.

    Libraries need to be reimagined, and it would be my goal to reimagine them so that all the expertise and skills of current librarians are put to even more effective use in an open-access library. Smart presidents already know that digitization is not a magic recipe for cost-cutting on the labor side. It should, I think, yield cost savings in aggregate by cutting certain middlemen out of the loop, and I suppose that does mean that I think *somebody* will have a job on the line in this shift. But I think there’s even a big expansion of a certain kind of publisher that ought to follow: we should be turning back to university presses and using them as the primary vehicle for creating consortial-level investment in open-access publication structures that are fully under the control of scholarly institutions.

    I think it’s always a bad idea, in contrast, to fight against change so that you keep jobs as unchanging museum pieces. That’s not good for the dignity of people doing those jobs, it’s not good for the bottom line, it’s not good for the ability of the institution to respond to challenges.


    On thm’s point, it seems to me that the longer-term move should be towards something like PLOS One. Let usage and citation sort between the major work and the minor finding, and let new genres of publishable work flourish in the space-in-between. I think what we could do to go alongside formal, final open-access publishing is something more like “open workflow research”–let scholars start putting up notes, fragments, in-progress summaries as a project progresses, and create platforms suitable for that.

  4. Paul Pounds says:

    I agree that David has a point. Early career researchers (such as myself) dare not break ranks and publish in open journals without prestigious impact facts, for if we do, it becomes indefensible at our tenure reviews. How can we prove that our work is top quality, if we only ever publish in “No-Name” journals?

    Of course, with tenure there is no incentive to reduce the entry requirements; in fact, there is economic and political pressure within the university that demands accountability for tenure appointments. Young scientists can’t change, and old scientists have no motivation to. Depressingly, the change has to come from the top – from the very senior academics, many of whom are already entrenched in the editorial boards of major journals.

    Certainly in Australia, there is a strong cultural bias to relying on numbers to justify any decision, rather than making a reasoned qualitative call and taking responsibility for it, which makes Publish or Perish, ERA rankings and other metrics the order of the day. Whether this is a product of increasing demands and austerity in the tertiary education sector, or part of the general cultural malaise afflicting Australia, I don’t know, but it seems a key part of the problem is that the tenure process in inextricably linked to that of publishing and journals.

  5. Mike Tuciarone says:

    But Case, are his listings in for-profit closed systems like the MLS? That’s what we’re talking about here.

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