Sunday, January 12, 2014

Ludlow on Swartz and academic publishing

Philosopher Peter Ludlow, of Northwestern University, makes a strong and persuasive case that Aaron Swartz was justified in downloading the JStor database of journal articles, the 'crime' the US attorney had charged him with before he committed suicide last year.
Why did Swartz think that information in JSTOR belonged in the public domain? First, for the most part the articles in JSTOR were written with government support—either through agencies like the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Humanities, through state-financed educational institutions, or through the tuition of students and the donations of alumni.
Once a student graduates from her college she no longer has access to JSTOR—even though her tuition supported the research that went into the data represented there. She may go on to be a generous donor to her college and still not have access to JSTOR. You have to be a faculty member or student to have access, even though, to some degree, everyone helped pay for that research.
Many people I talk to assume payments to JSTOR flow through to the authors of the archived publications. But authors of academic publications, for the most part, don't see a dime from their journal publications. Ever. Worse still, some academic publishers now demand payments from authors to publish their papers. The academic publisher Springer, for example, has attempted to steer journal submissions to its online publication Springer Plus, offering to publish them for 850 euros each, albeit allowing some waivers.
How is that even possible? Here it is important to think about one of the consequences of the publish-or-perish model in academe. If you don't publish, you won't get tenure. Even if you have tenure, your reputation (and salary) is staked to your publication record. In my field, philosophy, the top journals accept only about 5 percent of submissions. That means that publishers of academic journals have tremendous bargaining power with their authors.
When an academic signs away copyright to an academic publisher, it amounts to a "contract of adhesion"—meaning a contract in which one party has all the power and it was not freely bargained. One could even make the case that the courts ought to void these contracts.
Why do scholars still submit their articles to journals that are behind pay walls, and more important why do they serve as editors and referees for these journals (usually gratis)? They submit articles because there is still prestige attached to these journals and because online alternatives do not carry the same weight in tenure and promotion decisions. This is of course due to the general inertia of academic life. Academics need to do some soul searching: Is placing so much weight on tradition worth the cost to members of the profession and the public at large?
Until academics get their acts together and start using new modes of publication, we need to recognize that actions like Aaron Swartz's civil disobedience are legitimate. They are attempts to liberate knowledge that rightly belongs to all of us but that has been acquired by academic publishers through tens of thousands of contracts of adhesion and then bottled up and released for exorbitant fees in what functionally amounts to an extortion racket.
I agree. Academic publishing has devolved into an extortion racket whose purpose is to maximize payments to publishers by its stranglehold on authors and libraries. Wide dissemination of ideas is not part of the business plan.
Read Ludlow's entire argument here.

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