Friday, 22 July 2011

Aaron Swartz and JSTOR

Aaron Swartz, a 24 year old Harvard fellow, has been indicted in the USA for downloading 4.8 million files from JSTOR, the principal portal to old academic journal articles. The allegation is that he intended to make the downloaded articles available for free through file-sharing websites. Basically, he is accused of intellectual property theft.

He was able to do the actual download without difficulty because academic institutions pay lump sum fees to JSTOR so that their own students and academics when possessed of the necessary password can download for free; people like me, with no academic affiliation, have to pay to get into JSTOR.

In pre-digital times, academics wrote articles in publicly-funded working time and sent them off to (mostly) privately-owned journals which published them. The journals were sold at high prices to university libraries and at slightly less high prices to any individual foolish enough to subscribe.

When you had an article published in an academic journal, you would be sent 25 or 50 off-prints of your own article which you could distribute to your friends and people you wanted to impress. You did not get paid and you had usually signed away the copyright to the journal owners - for "administrative convenience" they used to tell you: we can deal with requests to reprint your work without having to trouble you.

As a result, academics often did not know when their work was reprinted in anthologies and so on. This was not without inefficiency: recently, I noticed a 1980 article of mine re-cycled in a very expensive library-targetted anthology on Advertising, published by Berg. The article was a first shot at a theory within an on-going project; a much better version was published a few years later. Had anyone contacted me, I could have pointed this out, but that's not how it's done.

In Europe, a relatively small number of firms were in the journal-publishing business - Springer Verlag, de Gruyter, Pergamon, Elsevier, Basil Blackwell are names which I remember - and over time, most of them have been absorbed into conglomerates. Publicly - funded university presses also used to publish journals, but most of them failed financially. The whole system was fairly opaque and very few people were curious.

The advent of digital media provided an opportunity to re-cycle all this old academic work sitting in dusty journals and that is what JSTOR does, for a fee.

My sympathies are with Aaron Swartz. Since so much public money went in to the production of these academic articles and since the journal publishers made their money first-time round with no expectation of a second chance (the Internet had not been invented), I would like to see this work made available for free to anyone, anywhere, with administrative costs met either by registration fees (rather than pay-per-view) or invisibly by governments or the university sector.

Such an arrangement would be valuable especially in poor countries where university budgets are limited and students cash-strapped.

Postscript added 13 January 2013: Still under indictment for the JSTOR download, Aaron Swartz committed suicide in New York on 11 January 2013. He was 26.

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