I don’t think there’s much more to say about Aaron Swartz. I didn’t know him personally, but like many others I am a beneficiary of the work he did. And I have agreed for much of my life as an academic with the thinking that led him to his fateful act in a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most centrally, that there are several ethical imperatives that should make everything that JSTOR (or any comparable bundling of scholarly publication) holds freely available to everyone: much of that work was underwritten directly or indirectly by public funds, the transformative impact of open access on inequality is already well-documented, and it's in keeping with the obligations and values that scholars allege to be central to their work.
Blame is coming down heavy on MIT and JSTOR, both of which were at pains to distance themselves from the legal persecution of Swartz even before news of his suicide broke, particularly JSTOR, which very early on asked that Swartz not be prosecuted. Blame is coming down even more heavily, as it should, on federal prosecutors who have been spewing a load of spurious garbage about the case for over a year. They had discretion and they abused it grievously in an era when vast webs of destructive and criminal activities have been discretionarily ignored if they stem from powerful men and powerful institutions. They chose to be Inspector Javert, chasing down Swartz over a loaf of bread.
But if we’re talking blame, then there’s a diffuse blame that ought to be conferred. In a way, it’s odd that MIT should have been the bagman for the ancien regime: its online presence and institutional thinking about digitization have otherwise been quite forward-thinking in many respects. If MIT allowed itself to be used by federal prosecutors looking to put an intellectual property head on a pike, that is less an extraordinary gesture by MIT and more a reflection of the academic default.
I’ve been frustrated for years, like other scholars and faculty members who take an interest in these issues, at the remarkable lassitude of academia as a whole toward publication, intellectual property and digitization. Faculty who tell me passionately about their commitment to social justice either are indifferent to these concerns or are sometimes supportive of the old order. They defend the ghastly proposition that universities (and governments) should continue to subsidize the production of scholarship that is then donated to for-profit publishers who then charge high prices to loan that work back to the institutions that subsidized its creation, and the corollary, demanded by those publishers, that the circulation of such work should be limited to those who pay those prices.
Print was expensive, print was specialized, and back in the age of print, what choice did we have? We have a choice now. Everything, everything, about the production of scholarship can be supported by consortial funds within academe. The major added value is provided by scholars, again largely for free, in the work of peer review. We could put the publishers who refuse to be partners in an open world of inquiry out of business tomorrow, and the only cost to academics would be the loss of some names for journals. Every journal we have can just have another name and be essentially the same thing. Every intellectual, every academic, every reader, every curious mind that wants to read scholarly work could be reading it tomorrow if they had access to a basic Internet connection, wherever they are in the world. Which is what we say we want.
I once had a colleague tell me a decade ago that this shift wouldn’t be a positive development because there’s a digital divide, that not everyone has access to digital devices, especially in the developing world. I asked this colleague, whose work is focused on the U.S., if she knew anything about the costs and problems that print imposed on libraries and archives and universities around the world, and of course she didn’t. Digitized scholarship can’t be lost or stolen the way that print can be, it doesn’t have to be mailed, it doesn’t have to have physical storage, it can’t be eaten by termites, it can’t get mold on it. If it were freed from the grasp of the publishers who charge insane prices for it, it could be disseminated for comparatively small costs to any institution or reader who wants access. Collections can be uniformly large everywhere that there’s a connection: what I can read and research, a colleague in Nairobi or Beijing or Moscow or São Paulo can read and research, unless their government (or mine) interferes. That simply couldn’t be in the age of print. Collections can support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous readers rather than just the one who has something checked out. I love the materiality of books, too, but on these kinds of issues, there’s no comparison. And no justification.
The major thing that stands in the way of the potentiality of this change is the passivity of scholars themselves. Aaron Swartz’s action, and its consequences, had as much to do with that generalized indifference as it did with any specific institution or organization. Not all culture needs to be open, and not all intellectual property claims are spurious. But scholarship should be and could be different, and has a claim to difference deep in its alleged values. There should be nothing that stops us from achieving the simplest thing that Swartz was asking of us, right now, in memory of him.
Timothy Burke is professor of history at Swarthmore College.
OpenStax College, an open-access textbook publisher, introduces its first offering through iTunes -- and hopes the $4.99 charge will allow students to benefit from extras and the business model to grow.
Scholarly publishing consultants Tracy Gardner and Simon Inger recently concluded a large-scale study of how researchers navigate the flood of digitized scholarly content. Renew Training, the British company they run, will sell you the complete data set for a mere £1000 (that's $1,592), or the same information in a deluxe Excel spreadsheet, outfitted with specially designed an analytic features, for £2,500 (a cool $3,981). Anyone whose curiosity is merely idle or penniless must settle for the “survey edition” of the consultants' own analysis, in PDF, which is free.
As you would expect, it's more of an advertisement than a report, with graphs that hint at how much data they have, and how many kinds of it, from around the world. Gardner and Inger’s own report, “How Readers Discover Content in Scholarly Journals,” is available in e-book format at a reasonable price – so I sprang for a copy and have culled some of their findings for this week’s column.
The key word here being some, because even the consultants’ non-exhaustive crunching of the numbers is pretty overwhelming. Between May and July of this year, they collected responses from more than 19,000 interview subjects spanning the populated world. The questions covered various situations in which someone might go looking for scholarly articles in a digital format and the considerable range of ways of going about it. Two-thirds of respondents were from academic institutions – with a large majority (three out of four) identifying themselves as researchers.
Roughly two-thirds of the respondents were from North America and Europe, and the interview itself was conducted in English. But enough participants came from the medical, corporate, and government sectors, and from countries in Africa, Oceania, and South America, to make the study something other than a report on Anglo-American academe. In addition, Gardner and Inger conducted a similar survey in 2008 (albeit with a much smaller harvest of data, from around 400 respondents). They also draw on a study they conducted in 2005 as consultants for another group.
The trends, then. The range and size of digitally published scholarship keep growing, and a number of tools or approaches have developed for accessing material. Researchers rely on university library sites, abstracting and indexing (A&I) services, compilations of links assembled by learned societies or research teams, social networks, and search engines both general (Yahoo) and focused (Google Scholar). You might bookmark a favorite journal, or sign up for an e-mail alert when the table of contents for a new issue is out, or use the journal publisher’s website to find an article.
The survey questions cover three research “behaviors” common across the disciplines: (1) following up a citation, (2) browsing in the core journals in a given field, and (3) looking for articles on a specific subject. As indicated, quite a few ways of carrying out these tasks are now available. Some approaches are better-developed in one field than another. The survey shows that researchers in the life sciences use the National Institutes of Health's bibliographical database PubMed “almost exclusively,” while the e-mailed table-of-contents (ToC) notifications for chemistry journals are rich enough in information for their readers to find them valuable.
And ease of access to sorting-and-channeling methods varies from one part of the world to the next. A researcher in a poor country is likely to use the search feature on a publisher’s website (bookmarked for just that purpose) for the simple reason that doing so is free – while someone working in a major research library may have access to numerous bibliographical tools so well-integrated into the digital catalog that users barely notice them as such.
North American researchers “are most likely to use an academic search engine or the library web pages if they have a citation,” the reports notes, “whilst Europeans are more likely to go the journal’s homepage.” Humanities scholars “rely much more on library web pages and especially aggregated collections of journals” than do researchers in the life sciences.
Comments made by social scientists reveal that they use “a much more varied list of resources” for following up citations, including one respondent who relied on “my husband’s library because mine is so bad.”
When browsing around the journals in their field, researchers in the field of education “are greater users of academic search engines and of web pages maintained by key research groups” than are people working in other areas. “Social scientists appear to use journal aggregations less than those in the humanities for reading the latest articles.” And all of them rank “library web pages and journal aggregations more highly” than do people in medicine and the physical and life sciences. One respondent indicated that it wasn’t really necessary to look through recent issues of journals in mathematics because “nowadays virtually all leading research in math is uploaded to arXiv.”
Specialized bibliographical databases “are still the most popular resource” for someone trying to read up on a particular topic, “and allowing for a margin of error [this preference] shows no significant change over time.” The web pages compiled by scholarly societies and research groups “have both shown a slight upward trend” in that regard, “which may be due to changes in publisher marketing strategies resulting in readers becoming more familiar publisher and society brands.”
The rise of academic search engines is a new factor -- and while there are others, such as Microsoft Academic Search, the bar graphs show Google Scholar looming over all competitors like a skyscraper over huts. And that’s not even counting the general-purpose Google search engine, which remains a standard tool for academic researchers.
One interesting point that the authors extract from the comments of participants is that many scholars remain unclear on the difference between a search engine and, say, a specialized bibliographical database. Unfortunately the survey seems not to have included information on respondents’ ages, though it would be interesting to know if that is a factor in recognizing such distinctions.
As I said, the e-book version is reasonably priced, and well within reach of anyone intrigued by this column's aerial survey. The publishers and information managers who can afford the full-dress, all-the-data version, which will allow comparison between the research preferences of Malaysian physicists and German historians, and so forth, will be able to extract from it information on how better to engineer access to their content by the specific research constituencies using it.
For the rest of us, it's a reminder of how many methods we have available for gaining access to the labyrinth of digital scholarship -- and, perhaps, of how much we take them for granted.
“Our university is not a supermarket!” read one of the fliers I saw posted up around the University College London campus while there to attend a conference this past week. It seems that early November is now the official occasion for militant discontent over austerity and higher education, at least in England. Arriving for the same annual conference a year ago, I’d made my way through streets crowded with students demonstrating against budget cuts and privatization, amidst police who were prepared (so a newspaper said the following morning) to use plastic bullets if the crowd got rowdy, as it had during the huge protests against a proposal to lift the cap on tuitions in November 2010.
Fifty thousand people had turned out for that event -- more than twice as many as even the organizers expected – and a few hundred of them decided to occupy the campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party, which they left considerably worse for wear. Elsewhere, another crowd menaced the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in their Rolls Royce, which was paint-bombed and its rear window smashed.
That was 2010. Nothing so A Tale of Two Cities-ish took place during the November 2011 march through central London. As for next week -- who knows? The National Union of Students has called for a march through central London on November 21, scheduled to coincide with the weekly questioning of the prime minister by members of the House of Commons. Complaining that the government has been “slashing undergraduate teaching funding, increasing tuition fees, introducing draconian restrictions on international students, cutting funding for post-graduate students, [and] hiking fees for adult learners looking to gain basic skills,” the NUS also points to another worsening situation: nearly a million people in England between the ages of 16 and 24 are currently unemployed. (The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, projects rising joblessness among youth to continue as a global trend over the next five years.) The police will probably have their plastic bullets ready next week, come what may.
As slogans go, “Our university is not a supermarket!” impressed me as one that wouldn’t work as a rallying cry in the United States. While Charles Eliot had many sober and lofty reasons for introducing the electives system at Harvard University in the late 19th century, its near-universal adoption throughout undergraduate education in the U.S. surely has more to do with the principle that it’s a good idea to give the customers what they want. (That was a running complaint in the late Jacques Barzun’s reflections on American education, discussed here last month.) It seems that we like our supermarket universities just fine here.
But that's just too cynical, and these are times when we should be ashamed of cynicism rather than proud of it. While writing this, I've gotten word from a philosophy major at Howard University that he and other students will be occupying Alaine Locke Hall on Thursday, November 15, to protest "tuition rates, administrative mistreatment of janitorial staff, and program cuts." These are not the demands of disgruntled consumers, and the protesters are very deliberate about their timing: Thursday is World Philosophy Day.
If their occupation goes on long enough, the students should read a recent volume called What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini, a professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University. His Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2006) is as trenchant and far-flung a work of cultural history as anything I’ve ever read, and some of its qualities also come through in the occasional pieces he has been writing about higher education since the 1980s, many of them gathered in the new book. Published this spring by Penguin, it is available as a paperback in the U.K. and Canada but not in the U.S., though you can order it to read on Kindle.
Much of it is quite specific to British debates over the reform and restructuring of the country’s university system -- and a few of the older pieces (including one called “Bibliometry,” from the late 1980s, on the use of citation statistics as “performance indicators” for scholars’ work) are now period pieces. But his response to the rise of corporate thinking and management-speak in academe is acerbic in ways that have aged well. “I work in the knowledge and human-resources industry,” one piece begins. “My company specializes in two types of product: we manufacture high-quality, multi-skilled units of human capacity; and we produce commercially relevant, cutting-edge new knowledge in user-friendly packages of printed material….Let me put that another way. I’m a university teacher. I teach students and I write books.”
What is there about education and scholarship that gets lost in this sort of "mission statement"-ese? Collini's book is a sustained engagement with that question, but one passage stands out as a memorable formulation of what distinguishes the university from any other institution:
“A university, it may be said, is a protected space in which various forms of useful preparation for life are undertaken in a setting and manner which encourages the students to understand the contingency of any particular packet of knowledge and its interrelations with other, different forms of knowledge. To do this, the teachers themselves need to be engaged in constantly going beyond the confines of the packets of knowledge that they teach, and there is no way to prescribe in advance what will and will not be fruitful ways to do that. Undergraduate education involves exposing students for a while to the experience of enquiry into something in particular, but enquiry which has no external goal other than improving the understanding of that subject matter. One rough and ready distinction between university education and professional training is that education relativizes and constantly calls into question the information which training simply permits.... [Learning of that kind] can only be done through engagement with some particular subject matter, not simply by ingesting a set of abstract propositions about the contingency of knowledge, and the more there already exists and elaborated and sophisticated tradition of enquiry in a particular area, the more demanding and rigorous will be the process of requiring and revising understanding."
Not written with a student demonstration on World Philosophy Day in mind, of course, but it seems fitting.
Keeping the costs of textbooks and other learning tools as low as possible for today’s college students is a goal almost everyone can agree upon. How to accomplish that goal, however, is another matter entirely.
And pursuing that goal in the courts, where sweeping decisions can render in a minute what might otherwise take years to implement, is risky at best and counterproductive at worst.
Sometimes, however, savings for students can be found in the most unlikely of places. To prove my point, take a close look at Cambridge University Press v. Becker, widely known as the Georgia State University (GSU) E-Reserves case, initially ruled upon three months ago by U.S. Federal District Court Judge Orinda Evans, who issued a further ruling last Friday.
Most of the press coverage of Judge Evans’s ruling concentrated on its delineation of the many ways that colleges can continue to cite the doctrine of “fair use” to permit their making copies of books and other materials for use in teaching and the pursuit of scholarship. And, to be fair (pardon the pun), in 94 of the 99 instances claimed by academic publishers such as Cambridge, Oxford and Sage to be violations of copyright, the judge did rule that GSU and its professors were covered by fair use.
But in its fair use assessment, the court made two important rulings: (1) it created a bright line rule for the amount of text that can be copied; and (2) it established that when publishers make excerpts available for licensing (particularly in digital form), the publisher has a better chance of receiving those licensing fees (i.e., it is less likely to be held fair use). With regard to the first ruling, the key point is that the guesswork has been taken out. Specific amounts (10 percent of a book if less than 10 chapters, or 1 chapter of a book if more than 10 chapters) allowable for copy have been set.
The second ruling is even more significant. At first glance, it might seem that licensing “fees” have negative ramifications for students, as they would now be forced to “pay” for materials that would otherwise be “free.” But the nuanced reality of the ruling, at least in my view, is that this will actually do more to keep student book prices down than the commonly accepted benefits of fair use.
Here’s why: without this finding, many small and mid-size academic publishers might otherwise be priced out of participating in the higher education market and a handful of larger textbook players could multilaterally decide to raise prices within their tight but powerful group, serving to hurt students’ pocketbooks in the process.
However, the ability for all publishers -- small, medium and large -- to sell excerpts that are “reasonably available, at a reasonable price” levels the playing field for suppliers of content. This then leads to a pricing scheme that rewards the creation of effective units of content, meaning that students are paying only for what is most relevant to their studies, and not the extra materials that inevitably become part of comprehensive textbook products.
Disaggregation of content therefore, is not a license to charge students for materials that would otherwise be free. Instead, disaggregation is an enabler of the provision of targeted, highly relevant content that, in the end, may actually cost students less than their purchase of more generalized materials that often include content not taught in a particular class.
The pricing of disaggregated content is, to be sure, set entirely by the publisher. But a publisher faced with an opportunity to amortize a portion of its intellectual investment through what is, in effect, a “permission fee” per student or to hold fast to a view of “buy the entire book or nothing at all” will, I am fairly certain, come to a quick realization that unit pricing is the way to go.
If “a small excerpt of a copyrighted book is available in a convenient format and at a reasonable price, then that factor [in the fair use assessment] weighs in favor of the publisher to be compensated for such academic use,” according to Judge Evans’s initial ruling in the GSU E-Reserves case. This not only stands in her recent ruling, it is reasonable because it incentivizes publishers to make their content more readily available to be licensed and it provides a mechanism by which academic institutions can take advantage of those licenses.
From the outset, the purpose of the GSU E-Reserves case, as brought by the plaintiff publishers, was to try to bring some judicial clarity to GSU’s practice of posting large amounts of copyrighted material to e-reserves system under a claim of fair use.
Now, with this latest ruling by Judge Evans, the copyright picture is beginning to clarify, but a healthy debate of the meaning of the ruling remains in order. As CEO of a company that strives to make available copyright-cleared units of content for professors to assemble into “best-of” books, I’ve just provided my take. What’s yours?
Caroline Vanderlip is CEO of SharedBook Inc., parent company of AcademicPub.