Essay on role of academe in the tragedy of Aaron Swartz's death
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.