How Academia Continues to Betray Aaron Swartz

aaron swartzAs news spread last week that digital rights activist Aaron Swartz had killed himself ahead of a federal trial on charges that he illegally downloaded a large database of scholarly articles with the intent to freely disseminate its contents, thousands of academics began posting free copies of their work online, coalescing around the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute.

This was a touching tribute: a collective effort to complete the task Swartz had tried – and many people felt died trying – to accomplish himself. But it is a tragic irony that the only reason Swartz had to break the law to fulfill his quest to liberate human knowledge was that the same academic community that rose up to support his cause after he died had routinely betrayed it while he was alive.

The most obvious culprit was MIT, whose computer system Swartz used for his downloads. Their decision to make sharing journal articles a criminal matter is inexcusable. But their real betrayal was allowing these articles to fall into private hands in the first place.

Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.

Centuries ago, when printing and mailing paper journals was the most efficient way to disseminate new knowledge, a symbiotic relationship developed between scholars, who had ideas they wanted to share, and publishers, who had printing presses and the means to convey printed works to a wide audience. Transferring copyright to publishers, which protected their ability to recover costs and profit from their investment, was a reasonable price for authors to pay to further their disseminating mission.

But with the birth of the internet, scholars no longer needed publishers to distribute their work. As NYU’s Clay Shirky has noted, publishing went from being an industry to being a button.

Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.

Instead of encouraging their faculty to make their work widely available, virtually all universities send the unmistakable message to current and aspiring faculty that success in their career depends on publishing in the most high profile place you can. Since the most prestigious journals are generally old, this edict has the effect of stifling innovation in scientific communication. While countless alternatives to the traditional model have arisen, academics in most fields are reluctant to embrace them, fearing that doing so would harm their career prospects.

It is hard to account for this abdication on a university’s basic mission to produce and disseminate knowledge as anything but institutional laziness, as universities essentially farm out responsibility for screening job and promotion candidates to journals.

Absurdly, as soon as the scholarly output of our universities is in the hands of publishers, they immediately buy it back, spending billions of scarce institutional dollars every year in subscription and licensing fees to provide access to students and faculty, but leaving everybody else out in the cold.

Posting our PDFs is all fine and good, but the real way to honor Aaron Swartz is to combat this pervasive institutional fecklessness and do everything in our power to make sure no papers ever end up behind pay walls again. We have to demand that our universities alter their policies to reward, rather than punish, free scholarly publishing, and that they stop cutting the checks that keep this immoral system afloat.

michael eisenAbove all else we need to enshrine the principle that the knowledge produced in the academy is a public good whose value is greatly diminished by turning it into private property. And maybe the next time someone shows up at a university wanting only to spread knowledge, instead of calling the cops, they’ll say “Great, how can we help?”

Michael Eisen
The Berkeley Blog

Saturday, 26 2013

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...

Comments

  1. JoeWeinstein says

    A big bravo and amen to this piece’s proposals and to its next-last sentence: “Above all else we need to enshrine the principle that the knowledge produced in the academy is a public good whose value is greatly diminished by turning it into private property.”

    Yes, the notion of true ‘intellectual property’ is an oxymoron.

    Not only the universities but the Feds too (and even somewhat our state governments too) also failed in their responsibility to facilitate universal access to scholarship. They used to do more but still do much to finance research and finance public universities, and it’s thanks to the Feds that Internet exists. For just a fraction of funds given over to individual research grants, they could long ago have ensured timely well-reviewed publication and widest availability of journals (as now internet publication) at low or no cost.

    Regrettably Swartz chose suicide rather than to either fight or flee his crazed persecutors.

  2. kjp says

    Lots of conflation of the entities that make up academia here. Some of us who write these articles have no access to them ourselves, receive no remuneration for the research and writing, and would be happy to share the work if we had the opportunity and could afford to do so. As unemployed contingent faculty I am waiting for better times to pay the $100 plus to get my dissertation into public domain (and download a copy for myself…)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *