MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz by Fighting To Make Academic Journals Open to Everyone

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Jan. 31 2013 7:42 AM

How MIT Can Honor Aaron Swartz

Fight to make academic journals open to everyone.

Aaron Swartz at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington, D.C., in May 2012.
Aaron Swartz at the Freedom to Connect conference in Washington, D.C., in May 2012

Photo by Doc Searls/Flickr

Beginning in the fall of 2010, Aaron Swartz repeatedly logged on to MIT’s campus network and used an automated script to download nearly 5 million articles from JSTOR, one of the largest digital archives of scholarly journals in the world. When they discovered Swartz’s actions, both JSTOR and MIT faced a choice—should they help prosecute Swartz as a nefarious hacker, or should they forgive him for skirting the law while pursuing his activism?

Last summer, after he agreed to return the articles he’d downloaded, JSTOR dropped its civil case against Swartz. MIT took a different course. According to Swartz’s friends and supporters, the university played a key role in federal prosecutors’ efforts to prosecute Swartz of a litany of computer fraud charges. On Jan. 11, facing the near certainty of jail time, Swartz committed suicide. Shortly afterward, MIT’s president released a heartfelt public statement. “It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy,” wrote L. Rafael Reif. He appointed Hal Abelson, a respected computer science professor, to lead an investigation into the university’s participation in the Swartz case.

Abelson has said that he will release his report in a few weeks’ time. I’m hoping that the investigation will go beyond merely excoriating the school for its shameful role in Swartz’s prosecution. If MIT truly wants to atone for joining the federal case against Swartz, it should do something much grander: It should pledge to spend its money, prestige, and moral authority to launch a multiuniversity campaign to free every scholarly article from behind pay-wall archives like JSTOR. In other words, MIT should pledge to finish the project Swartz started.

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Making academic articles available to everyone is one of the most direct ways for MIT to fulfill its public-spirited mission to expand the world’s access to knowledge. Over the last decade, MIT, like other big-name schools, has put thousands of its lectures and course materials online, allowing anyone, anywhere to access it for free. It has even begun offering certificates to people who take its online courses. But liberating academic articles from pay walls would be a much greater, more lasting contribution. If every scholarly work were free and searchable, teachers, schoolchildren, university students, and brilliant autodidacts everywhere (people like Swartz himself) would be able to use the Internet as a true source of learning.

Freeing academic articles would also help universities reclaim their place in public debates. Much of the work produced in academia is never seen by anyone outside that cloistered world, because everyone who’s not affiliated with a university is cut off from access. The fact that most people don’t have access to legitimate research is probably not the only reason that so many of your fellow citizens hold dubious beliefs about climate change, evolution, vaccines, or other things that make you facepalm—but it doesn’t help. By killing pay walls, MIT could make the truth more relevant.

But if all that’s too dreamy for you, here’s a simpler reason for MIT to stop the pay-wall madness: It will save money. The world’s colleges now collectively spend at least $10 billion and probably more than $20 billion every year on subscriptions to academic journals and archives like JSTOR. Even worse, those costs are rising at an astronomical rate—by one calculation, the amount that a typical college library spends on annual journal subscriptions rose by more than 300 percent between 1986 and 2005, much faster than inflation, tuition, and most university budgets. (Note that this was during a period when many journals went electronic—a time when you’d expect their costs and, thus, their prices to go down, not up.) These prices keep rising because the market for journals is inelastic—since there’s no substitute for any specific journal, whatever price it charges, universities feel like they’ve got to keep paying. This is all explained very well in a paper called “The High Cost of Scholarly Journals (And What To Do About It),” which I’d recommend you read if it weren’t behind a pay wall.

The amount universities spend on journals is especially perverse when you consider that most of the research in those journals was produced by scholars affiliated with and supported by universities, government agencies, and philanthropic endowments, all of whom have an interest in spreading scholarship far and wide. When you stop to think about it, the whole process looks Rube Goldbergian: People who work for universities and are funded by the public are giving their work away to journals for free—and then the journals are charging universities to buy it back. They’re making enormous profits from the scheme, too. For instance Elsevier, one of the leading publishers of scientific journals, routinely reports profit margins of around 37 percent.

MIT could stop the whole business with a few bold steps. First, it should declare that, within three years’ time, its libraries will cease subscribing to all academic journals and archives that do not make their articles available online to everyone. Second, MIT should require all of its faculty, grad students, and other affiliated researchers to submit their work only to open-access journals. Third, MIT should instruct its deans and other officials to no longer look favorably upon the mere fact of publication in a “prestigious” journal when making hiring and tenure decisions. Instead, promotions should be based on the quality of a person’s work, wherever it’s been published. (This sounds obvious, but most people in academia will tell you that where you publish is just as important as what you publish.)

Finally and perhaps most importantly, MIT should encourage other universities to participate in this effort. Specifically, it should establish a fund that pays for the true costs of publishing academic journals. Call it the Aaron Swartz Memorial Open-Access Fund. Instead of paying exorbitant subscription fees to for-profit journals, universities would instead contribute to the fund. (The amount would be a function of a school’s size and research budget.) Journals would draw from the fund according to how often their work is accessed. It’s not unlike the compulsory license system that pays musicians when their work is covered or played on the radio, except instead of allowing for more poppy renditions of Elvis tunes, this fund would let anyone in the world access any academic article at any time.

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