On Aaron Swartz and Academic Publishing

I will say this from the bottom of my heart because, even though I didn’t know about Swartz until his death, the whole thing has moved me greatly. Especially after reading about Anonymous’s attack on MIT’s websites.

I’ve worked in the academia, now a grad student, I know how much pressure is put on students and professors to get published in academic journals. There’s a sense of validation in seeing your name in one of those. All of a sudden you’re one of THEM, the academics.

But when you think deep about it, there’s something they aren’t telling you. It was something a professor brought to my mind during a conversation about self-publishing: “academic journals don’t use crowdsourcing, they use free slave labor.” Of course, some people might say nobody is pointing a gun at you to publish there, but, in a sense, there is one and you can feel its cold metal pressing on your temple every time a little more. Because if you’re a professor under a contract you’re evaluated on how much you publish and where you publish it, and when the accreditation council comes they want to see those numbers and they better be some pretty darn big ones.

What happens to that article you put your sweat and tears into then? It goes off to be part of the giant databases that are then sold to libraries. Who makes the money? The publisher and the database, not you. You sent it over, willingly, for free. Those hours you spent researching? Writing? Going through the corrections the peer review team sent you? Hey, you’re name will be shown there, come on, that’s all you want, right?

Then a student logs into the database from his/her university’s library and, oh wait, the exact article he/she wants has another fee that must be paid to access it. Where’s that democratization the Web 2.0 preaches about now?

I’m not saying that what Aaron Swartz did wasn’t stealing. But who’s stealing from who? I don’t know you, but when someone takes something someone else made and makes a profit out of it, it’s ground to piss off whoever was the original author. You write those articles so they be read, not kept hidden where only few can access them.

“Whether or not the government contributed to his suicide, the government’s prosecution of Swartz was a grotesque miscarriage of justice, a distorted and perverse shadow of the justice that Aaron died fighting for – freeing the publicly-funded scientific literature from a publishing system that makes it inaccessible to most of those who paid for it – enabling the collective betterment of the world through the facilitation of sharing – an ideal that we should all support. ” (Anonymous on MIT’s website, taken from article linked above)

Collective betterment is what we all, inside and outside the academia, should strive for and that can only come from a true democratization of information through the Internet.

“We call for this tragedy to be a basis for a renewed and unwavering commitment to a free and unfettered internet, spared from censorship with equality of access and franchise for all” (Anonymous on MIT’s website, taken from article linked above)

Thank you, Aaron, for trying to make the world a better place by feeding it, so sorry it bit your hand.

Read more:

Prosecutor as bully by Lawrence Lessig

RIP, Aaron Swartz by Cory Doctorow

10 years ago he even planned for his hard drives to go public if he died


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