[FoRK] Aaron Swartz Was Right

Lucas Gonze lucas.gonze at gmail.com
Thu Feb 28 05:25:48 PST 2013


He *was* right. Absolutely.

There are a lot of fatuous causes. This one is real.

On Thu, Feb 28, 2013 at 4:46 AM, Eugen Leitl <eugen at leitl.org> wrote:
>
> https://chronicle.com/article/Aaron-Swartz-Was-Right/137425/
>
> The Chronicle Review
>
> February 25, 2013
>
> Aaron Swartz Was Right
>
> By Peter Ludlow
>
> The suicide of the Internet wunderkind Aaron Swartz has given rise to a great
> deal of discussion, much of it centered on whether the penalty sought against
> him by the prosecutor was proportional to his "crime."
>
> The consensus so far has been that Swartz did something wrong by accessing
> and releasing millions of academic papers from the JSTOR archive. But perhaps
> it is time to ask whether Swartz did in fact act wrongly. We might entertain
> the possibility that Swartz's act of civil disobedience was an attempt to
> help rectify a harm that began long ago. Perhaps he was not only justified in
> his actions but morally impelled to act as he did. Moreover, we too might be
> morally impelled to take action.
>
> To put it bluntly, the current state of academic publishing is the result of
> a series of strong-arm tactics enabling publishers to pry copyrights from
> authors, and then charge exorbitant fees to university libraries for access
> to that work. The publishers have inverted their role as disseminators of
> knowledge and become bottlers of knowledge, releasing it exclusively to the
> highest bidders. Swartz simply decided it was time to take action.
>
> He laid the philosophical groundwork back in 2008, in an essay entitled
> "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto."
>
> "Information is power," he wrote. "But like all power, there are those who
> want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural
> heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly
> being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to
> read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll
> need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier."
>
> Swartz said that this state of affairs was being driven by systemic problems,
> beginning with the need of corporations to extract maximum profit. "Large
> corporations, of course, are blinded by greed," he wrote. "The laws under
> which they operate require it—their shareholders would revolt at anything
> less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving
> them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies."
>
> Finally, he argued that the situation called for action:
>
> "There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the
> light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our
> opposition to this private theft of public culture."
>
> You might think that Swartz's prose is over the top ("bought off"
> politicians? "theft of culture"?), but it is very much on target. The
> academic publisher Elsevier has contributed to many U.S. Congressional
> representatives, pushing the Elsevier-supported Research Works Act, which
> among other things would have forbidden any effort by any federal agency to
> ensure taxpayer access to work financed by the federal government without
> permission of the publisher. An outcry effectively killed the proposed law,
> but it wasn't the first such publisher power play, and it probably won't be
> the last.
>
> What is more important to human culture than access to the knowledge in our
> scholarly journals? If anything, Swartz's manifesto understates the
> egregiousness with which this theft of public culture has been allowed to
> happen.
>
> Why did Swartz think that information in JSTOR belonged in the public domain?
> First, for the most part the articles in JSTOR were written with government
> support—either through agencies like the National Science Foundation and the
> National Endowment for the Humanities, through state-financed educational
> institutions, or through the tuition of students and the donations of alumni.
>
> Once a student graduates from her college she no longer has access to
> JSTOR—even though her tuition supported the research that went into the data
> represented there. She may go on to be a generous donor to her college and
> still not have access to JSTOR. You have to be a faculty member or student to
> have access, even though, to some degree, everyone helped pay for that
> research.
>
> Many people I talk to assume payments to JSTOR flow through to the authors of
> the archived publications. But authors of academic publications, for the most
> part, don't see a dime from their journal publications. Ever. Worse still,
> some academic publishers now demand payments from authors to publish their
> papers. The academic publisher Springer, for example, has attempted to steer
> journal submissions to its online publication Springer Plus, offering to
> publish them for 850 euros each, albeit allowing some waivers.
>
> How is that even possible? Here it is important to think about one of the
> consequences of the publish-or-perish model in academe. If you don't publish,
> you won't get tenure. Even if you have tenure, your reputation (and salary)
> is staked to your publication record. In my field, philosophy, the top
> journals accept only about 5 percent of submissions. That means that
> publishers of academic journals have tremendous bargaining power with their
> authors.
>
> When an academic signs away copyright to an academic publisher, it amounts to
> a "contract of adhesion"—meaning a contract in which one party has all the
> power and it was not freely bargained. One could even make the case that the
> courts ought to void these contracts.
>
> There was a time when securing a contract with an academic publisher meant
> that the work would receive the widest audience possible. The publishers
> could deliver journals to academic libraries, and other scholars would find
> those works when they went to browse the library (I used to do that on a
> monthly basis). Today, however, it would be much more efficient to simply
> make the articles available online to anyone who wishes to read them.
> Academic publishers have inverted their whole purpose for being; they used to
> be vehicles for the dissemination of knowledge in the most efficient way
> possible. Today they are useless choke points in the distribution of
> knowledge, even taking advantage of their positions to demand fees.
>
> Noam Scheiber, in a February 13 New Republic article, traces how Swartz
> focused on JSTOR in part because of a retreat he'd attended in Italy
> organized by the international nonprofit EIFL. According to its Web site,
> EIFL "works with libraries worldwide to enable access to digital information
> in developing and transition countries." Scheiber writes that EIFL is careful
> about obeying the law in the ways it disseminates information, but its key
> message apparently got to Swartz. "Rich people pay huge amounts of money to
> access articles," Scheiber quotes the EIFL official Monika Elbert as saying
> about the conference. "But what about the researcher in Accra? Dar es Salaam?
> Cambodia? It genuinely opened his eyes," she said of Swartz.
>
> JSTOR, which did not pursue criminal charges against Swartz and "regretted
> being drawn into" the U.S. attorney's case against him, came into existence
> in 1995 with good intentions. It sought a solution to the rapidly expanding
> problem of paying for and storing an ever-growing list of academic journals.
> The situation for libraries was becoming untenable.
>
> But like the original authors, JSTOR had to negotiate its licensing
> agreements from a position of weakness. There is a wonderful history of JSTOR
> written by Roger C. Schonfeld. In it he notes that the charter publishers
> signed up by JSTOR (in particular the University of Chicago Press) demanded
> that they be compensated if there was a loss to their (minimal) sales of
> rights to older materials, and they demanded compensation even before JSTOR
> covered its own expenses.
>
> And JSTOR really was in an impossible bargaining position. Important
> scientific papers do not have cheaper alternatives. If someone wants to read
> Watson and Crick's paper on DNA or Einstein's paper on the photoelectric
> effect, it is not as if there is a paper by John Doe that is just as good and
> available for less. Academic publishers are, in effect, natural monopolies
> that can demand as much money as we can afford, and possibly more. The result
> today is that a university like mine must subscribe to more than 10
> databases, at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars per year and without the
> ability to share the content with alumni, donors, or the community. JSTOR is
> experimenting with a "Register and Read" program that allows independent
> scholars free access to a subset of its database, but we need more solutions.
>
> It's not as if there are no other options. For example, the philosophy
> department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor started an online
> journal called Philosophers' Imprint, noting in its mission statement the
> possibility of a sunnier alternative:
>
> "There is a possible future in which academic libraries no longer spend
> millions of dollars purchasing, binding, housing, and repairing printed
> journals, because they have assumed the role of publishers, cooperatively
> disseminating the results of academic research for free, via the Internet.
> Each library could bear the cost of publishing some of the world's scholarly
> output, since it would be spared the cost of buying its own copy of any
> scholarship published in this way. The results of academic research would
> then be available without cost to all users of the Internet, including
> students and teachers in developing countries, as well as members of the
> general public."
>
> But a few paragraphs later the editors of Imprint acknowledge that "we don't
> know how to get to that future from here." While "academic institutions have
> access to the Internet [and] they have no reason to pay subscription or
> subvention fees to anyone for disseminating the results of academic
> research," they continue to do so. And I would argue that the fault lies with
> us academics.
>
> Why do scholars still submit their articles to journals that are behind pay
> walls, and more important why do they serve as editors and referees for these
> journals (usually gratis)? They submit articles because there is still
> prestige attached to these journals and because online alternatives do not
> carry the same weight in tenure and promotion decisions. This is of course
> due to the general inertia of academic life. Academics need to do some soul
> searching: Is placing so much weight on tradition worth the cost to members
> of the profession and the public at large?
>
> Until academics get their acts together and start using new modes of
> publication, we need to recognize that actions like Aaron Swartz's civil
> disobedience are legitimate. They are attempts to liberate knowledge that
> rightly belongs to all of us but that has been acquired by academic
> publishers through tens of thousands of contracts of adhesion and then
> bottled up and released for exorbitant fees in what functionally amounts to
> an extortion racket.
>
> When Swartz wrote his manifesto he pulled no punches, claiming that all of us
> with access to these databases have not just the right but the responsibility
> to liberate this information and supply it to those who are not as
> information-wealthy.
>
> "Those with access to these resources—students, librarians, scientists—you
> have been given a privilege," he wrote. "You get to feed at this banquet of
> knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not—indeed,
> morally, you cannot—keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to
> share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues,
> filling download requests for friends."
>
> Aaron Swartz's act of hacktivism was an act of resistance to a corrupt system
> that has subverted distribution of the most important product of the
> academy—knowledge. Until the academy finally rectifies this situation, our
> best hope is that there will be many more Aaron Swartz-type activists to
> remind us how unconscionable the current situation is, and how important it
> is that we change it.
>
> Peter Ludlow is a professor of philosophy at Northwestern University. His
> books include "Crypto Anarchy, Cyberstates, and Pirate Utopias" (MIT Press,
> 2001) and "The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the
> Dawn of the Metaverse" (MIT, 2007).
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