Michael Eisen writes: 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. [Continue reading…]