Let’s Start Talking about Open Access

I don’t write much about academia here, and perhaps I should start. As many know, all is not entirely well in American academia, especially in the humanities. Budget cuts, the increasing use of massive open online courses, the perils of publishing, the strangeness and delights of academic culture, the dearth of tenure track employment, the persistent political attack on college professors and how they do their job, and a general misunderstanding about academic labor demand more attention.

True, many people already address these issues far more cogently that I could . . . but news that Aaron Swartz committed suicide hit me. We academics rarely think about our work as a commodity, the mechanisms through which the public is denied access, and the profits corporations make by selling that access to mostly cash strapped public universities at exorbitant prices. But Swartz’s death is an indication that academic work is a high stakes game that can leave many of us with blood on our hands.

Who was Aaron Swartz?

According to the Huffington Post:

In the fall of 2010, Swartz downloaded millions of academic journal articles from the nonprofit online database JSTOR, which provides such articles free of charge to students and researchers. As a faculty member at Harvard University, Swartz had a JSTOR account, and downloaded the documents over the course of a few weeks from a library at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

JSTOR typically limits users to a few downloads at a time. Swartz’s activities ultimately shut down JSTOR’s servers briefly, and eventually resulted in MIT’s library being blocked by JSTOR for a few days.

This was inconvenient for JSTOR and MIT, and a violation of JSTOR’s Terms of Service agreement. Had JSTOR wanted to pursue civil charges against Swartz for breach of contract, it could have. But JSTOR did not, and washed its hands of the whole affair. In 2013, JSTOR made several million academic journal articles available to anyone, free of charge. Academic research is designed to be publicly accessible and is distinct from the research of private corporations, which assert aggressive intellectual property rights over activities they fund. Last June, Swartz told HuffPost that both JSTOR and MIT had advised prosecutors they were not interested in pursuing criminal or civil charges.

But the government pressed on, interpreting Swartz’s actions as a federal crime, alleging mass theft, damaged computers and wire fraud, and suggesting that Swartz stood to gain financially.

For this alleged “crime” Swartz was looking at a maximum of $4 million in fines and up to 50 years in prison. The great irony is that a few days ago JSTOR announced the release of 1,200 containing more that 4.5 million academic articles to the public for free.

I won’t go into the details of the problems with the economics of JSTOR and other academic databases, their role as gatekeepers of knowledge, and academic labor. Sarah Kendzior did an excellent job of that six months ago.

My personal concern besides the fact that a young man has committed suicide (which Swartz’s family says was directly connected the US Attorney’s office aggressive pursuit of this case), is that two professional organizations I belong to, the American Historical Association and the Association for Slavic, East European and Eurasian Studies, both house their journals with JSTOR, not to mention all of the major journals covering the Eurasian region are part of either JSTOR, Project Muse (both non-profit), Wiley Online, , Elsevier, Taylor & Francis, (all for profit) and others. These include the Slavic Review, Kritika, Europe-Asia Studies, Canadian Slavonic Papers, Slavic and East European Journal, the Russian Review, the Slavonic and East European Review, Cahiers du Monde russe, as well as many, many others covering history, literature and languages, sociology, political science, anthropology, geography, economics, and their sub-fields and disciplines.

I know it’s too much to ask for the AHA and ASEEES or the scholars who run these journals (often with little to no compensation) reconsider their relationship with subscription based academic online databases. I would ask, however, that in light of Aaron Swartz’s death my many colleagues begin a serious conversation about our intellectual property, the labor that produces it, its commodification, and distribution. There has been increasing debate about open access academic publishing over the last year. The “Finch Report” has put forward the most comprehensive case for increased access to academic knowledge in the sciences. The AHA has released a statement positing issues worth debating. It’s time for our field to jump into the conversation.

For those of us involved in Russian/Eurasian/Slavic studies, I think the issue of open access is of great importance. A very wide gap of communication, access, and dialogue exists between the knowledge scholars in the “west” produce about Eurasia, and what scholars “over there” produce. Advancements to close the gap have been made, certainly. But we often speak two different and parallel academic discourses. One critical step in closing that gap is to provide our colleagues in the region we study the ability to access our work. Because frankly, I don’t see how Russian institutions can afford $50,000 a year for entrance the fee into the concentration camp of ideas that JSTOR and the like stand guard over.