Last month, hacker activist (hacktivist?) Aaron Swartz was indicted for downloading 4.8 million proprietary academic articles from the JSTOR database via the MIT guest network. For this, he faces up to a $1 million fine and a potential jail sentence of 35 years. For ThinkProgress commentator Matthew Yglesias, the issues raised by the case point to a potential rethinking of the way we distribute knowledge via the academic system:

[H]ere’s the issue. Right now in academic publishing, what you have is basically a lot of donor- and government-financed nonprofit organizations taking outputs with near-zero distribution costs (electronic journal archives) and selling them to each other. For any one institution, this kind of makes sense. A publisher doesn’t want to give up his fees, which are valuable in meeting the costs of producing scholarship. But on net, it’s a mix of pointless and pernicious. Sale of access to journals helps finance scholarship, but it also raises the cost of scholarship. If everything was distributed for free, the whole exact same enterprise could be undertaken with no net financial loss. But there would be huge potential gains. A precocious 17 year-old could have free access to scholarship. So could a researcher living and working in a poor country. Or even an earnest political reporter who’s working on an issue and curious about what political science has to say about it.

The comments are an interesting read as well, mostly focusing on the question of how reliant the business models of academic journals in various fields are on article or subscription purchases, and the extent to which that income is a motivating factor for the quantity or quality of content seen in those journals. I’d be interested to hear further perspectives from our readers in academia on either of these issues.

Meanwhile, some 18,000 scientific papers from JSTOR and other databases are now available as a BitTorrent on The Pirate Bay, uploaded by a user named Greg Maxwell in response to the Swartz controversy. Is a bubble in academic journal piracy on the horizon?

  • In many cases, it’s not even free to college students. This very day, while working on my master’s thesis, I tried to get a 2004 article from the Journal of Popular Music Studies, a publication my university doesn’t subscribe to. To get a PDF of the article online via Wiley, I’d have to pay; the best I can do for free is get the actual issue of the journal via interlibrary loan. I mean, really, for starters, can’t all academic journals be available online for free to all undergraduate and graduate students?

  • It is a ripoff, but a ripoff that is supported by the tenure system, which requires publication of “peer reviewed” articles in “respected journals.” Publishing in an academic journal validates one’s scholarship as “important to the field.” But the fact is that the authors are not paid for the articles, the peer reviewers are not paid for their work, and most of the time the editors are academics who also are unpaid. Much of the research was paid for by government or foundation grants. Then university libraries are gouged for access. There are several new on-line journals that have instituted peer review processes, and I suspect this will be the model in the future. The system of academic journals will collapse of its own weight, as will the network of academic publishers, I suspect, but because higher education is so resistant to change, this collapse will likely occur in slow motion.

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