How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz

As 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.

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. 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?”


[Update: I modified the title to reflect the ongoing nature of the betrayal]


My related writing on science publishing:

What the UC “open access” policy should say

20 years of cowardice: the pathetic response of American universities to the crisis in scholarly publishing

The widely held notion that high-impact publications determine who gets academic jobs, grants and tenure is wrong. Stop using it as an excuse.

You are Elsevier: time to overcome our fears and kill subscription journals

Plagiarist or Puppet? US Rep. Carolyn Maloney’s reprehensible defense of Elsevier’s Research Works Act

Research Bought, Then Paid For

Peer review is f***ed up – let’s fix it

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  1. Posted January 22, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    I agree entirely. Your observation that “universities essentially farm out responsibility for screening job and promotion candidates to journals” is particularly pertinent. You and other progressive academics (I’ve left academia, so it isn’t my problem anymore, thank goodness) need to stamp out the common presumption that “he/she can’t really be any good, because he/she hasn’t published in Nature/Science/Whatever.” I found this presumption especially common among biologists.

  2. Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Nothing to add but “preach it, brother”.

    This is absurd. Absurd and horrifying. And intolerable.

  3. Sheryl
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:57 pm | Permalink

    Well said. I hope this attitude spreads throughout academia.

  4. Posted January 22, 2013 at 4:59 pm | Permalink

    As with Ralph, I left the tenure track years ago and have been alternately amused and appalled by the attitude that one’s worth as a human being is measured by lines on the cv from the “good journals”. MIT’s complicity in this travesty leaves me speechless. Thank you so much for your post.

  5. MBG
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 6:10 pm | Permalink

    Let’s not forget the complicity of those who do editorial (review) work for said journals without compensation. And the fact that publishers of journals that are affiliated with scholarly associations charge huge fees to said associations, driving up the cost of membership and making it cost prohibitive for young scholars to then access the benefits of belonging to their scholarly societies.

  6. Laura J. McGarry
    Posted January 22, 2013 at 7:31 pm | Permalink

    Was MIT perhaps bowing to a corrupt criminal justice system and corrupt federal court system? Aaron’s legal download of court records from PACER initiated a watch and government harassment. Further, and again, there was no hacking! There was no stealing! There was abuse of power and purposeful misinterpretation/stretching of the laws with a goal to eventually ban Aaron from computers. The only criminals in this instant matter are the ones being supported by the tax payer who have decided that they and they alone are exempt from the laws of this nation. BTW your corrupt legal community and corrupt federal court system make Bernie Madoff look like a piker. Pretense litigation with civil suits and malicious prosecutions in criminal matters to pad attorneys pockets and the pockets of corrupt public servants is routine! Why has Carmen Ortiz and the FBI/DOJ not taken action with documented proof that public servants use computers paid for by the tax payer to run pretense litigation and that their little capers include the identity theft of Circuit and US District Judges along with fraudulent docket entries and the rendering of bogus opinions and judgments to obstruct justice. Gee if Aaron had been able to continue his efforts on getting ALL court records free to the public the ruses in these courts would be evident and the game would be over. WHY did CARMEN ORTIZ AND MIT go after the one person that could expose alleged criminals that she had no intention of prosecuting. Nothing from our courts or any government agency can be trusted. Never in the history of this country have we needed at the current critical level actual OPEN GOVERNMENT and utilization of the FOIA. Aaron Swartz was a thorn in the side of a corrupt government and a VERY CORRUPT FEDERAL COURT SYSTEM!!! Harassment over the PACER incident simply led Aaron to pursue another form of information release where as an academic he knew common sense would prevail because who in their right mind was going to object to EDUCATION? Well apparently alleged criminals objected because they now had a way to bar Aaron from computers. Carmen Ortiz do your damn job and go after real criminals? [“Decency, security and liberty alike demand that government officials shall be subjected to the rules of conduct that are commands to the citizen. In a government of laws, existence of the government will be imperiled if it fails to observe the law scrupulously. Our government is the potent, omnipresent teacher. For good or for ill, it teaches the whole people by its example. Crime is contagious. If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for the law, it invites every man to come a law unto himself. It invites anarchy.” (United States v. Olmstead, 277 U.S. 438 (1928). Justice Louis Brandeis]

  7. Hoi polloi member
    Posted January 23, 2013 at 2:17 am | Permalink

    The crisis in the peer-reviewed literature is not only about prestige, tradition and academic conservatism, but also the control of information. Academic administrators can get carried away with the power they have in setting access to such a precious resource. This is articulated in The Conversation in this article (which seems to seriously refer to the public as the hoi polloi!)
    ‘If we have a valuable product, shouldn’t we protect access to it?’
    In democracies, Freedom of Information laws are supposed to protect us from this problem. As I long-term observer of the literature crisis I have wondered about the relevance of FOI law and finally, frustrated at still being unable to access the literature, decided to properly investigate, at least in Australia.
    In this country most jurisdictions have recently updated their FOI laws to improve the public’s right of access to documents held by public agencies (among which universities are definitely included). Some of the new laws are called Right to Information and require proactive release unless there is a good reason against it. Even under older laws, though, the practice of universities withholding their research publications from the public, especially upon request, is not on solid legal ground and a test case in this area could well appear.
    I’m not sure about other countries, but preliminary investigations for the US suggest the situation might be less clearcut.

  8. Posted January 23, 2013 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    I didn’t know Aaron Swartz personally, so I can only imagine how he felt in the wake of his treatment by the Justice System. Were I in his place, I would have been mortified by the disproportionate response by the US Attorney and I would have felt forsaken by the powers that be at MIT.

  9. Posted January 26, 2013 at 6:27 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t this be a great opportunity for MIT to require their faculty to publish in open-access journals? #secondchance

  10. Posted January 26, 2013 at 6:28 pm | Permalink

    Wouldn’t this be a great opportunity for MIT to show leadership by requiring their faculty to publish in open-access journals? #secondchance

  11. Billy
    Posted January 26, 2013 at 11:27 pm | Permalink

    In this day and age, why aren’t Universities themselves taking the initiative to start online peer-reviewed journals? All you need nowadays are some servers and bandwidth. As journals nowadays have authors do most of the typesetting/formatting *in addition to the peer review*, why not bring these things in house? The vast majority of journal editors are academics anyway! Sure, there would be complaints about institutional bias, but that can be dealt in an objective manner. Top tier private and public Universities that have the funds to do so have an obligation to wrest control away from publishers.

  12. Evgeny
    Posted January 28, 2013 at 9:59 am | Permalink

    Read Lenin and Stalin.

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