If we’re serious about improving outcomes for our students, we need to make sure the digital transition happens — and happens soon. As I wrote last year, "I’m not talking about a slight or even gradual increase in e-book adoptions... I’m talking about a total transition from a reliance on print textbooks to a full embrace of digital content and learning systems."
For the most part, I’ve been encouraged by the response to the article – from educators, from the industry, and from the hallways of my own company. Yes, I’ve been told a few times that we shouldn’t view technology as a panacea (I don’t), but by far the most common reaction I heard was, "Three years, sounds great!”
Then: "Too bad there’s no way we can pull it off."
Oh ye of little faith.
With 12 months down and 24 to go until my suggested “digital deadline,” let’s take a look at how much progress we’ve made, how far we still have to go, and what I think the next 12 months will hold for the industry on the journey to our digital future.
Why Digital? Why Now?
The reasons why we need to keep our foot on the gas as we move toward our digital future are clear: Our students aren’t graduating with the knowledge and skills they need to be successful, but they are leaving college with plenty of debt, and in many cases, no degree at all.
As a result, students are turning their backs on higher education. The New York Times recently reported that college enrollment fell 2 percent in 2012-13, and that in 2013-2014: “traditional four-year, nonprofit colleges [will] begin a contraction that will last for several years.” While I fully support the idea of different pathways to success, I don’t think that a major shift away from higher education is good for our students – or our country.
These challenges are complex, but they can be addressed – at least in part – by digital. In addition to improving access and affordability, digital can help instructors deliver the type of personalized learning experiences that have the potential to not only boost engagement but make real improvements in grades and graduation rates. If this type of technology exists, why aren’t we doing everything possible to bring it into every classroom in the country?
At McGraw-Hill Higher Education, we’ve seen usage of two of our biggest digital products, LearnSmart and Connect, increase year-over-year by 43 percent and 29 percent, respectively. We’ve also invested more than $130 million in digital R&D over the past year. And before you say, "You’re only making that investment because you expect a return," let me say that you’re exactly right. Our biggest chance to achieve success as a company is to help instructors and students achieve success. People pay for results, and digital can help drive those results. It’s that simple. And we’re not the only education-focused company making such investments or seeing increased interest in digital products.
"Are We There Yet?" A Year in Review – and a Look Ahead
Last year, I cited a number of trends that illustrate one simple concept: technology is becoming a bigger part of our students’ lives. These trends continue: A July report from Wakefield Research revealed that 99 percent of current students have at least one digital device and 68 percent use at least three devices each day.
But more interesting, I think, is the acceptance of big data in higher education as a positive, disruptive force. Not only have we seen more colleges take a data-driven approach to improving student outcomes, we’ve seen data capture the popular imagination. Just take a look at Nate Silver, the statistician who accounted for nearly 20 percent of the web traffic of The New York Times leading up to the 2012 presidential election.
Ed tech has made similar strides. In general, today's technology is more needs-focused, more thoroughly driven by data and research, and provides a user experience that, if not quite on par with what’s offered by the consumer tech world already, has narrowed the gap considerably.
We’ve also seen adaptive learning become a household term. Not only did the industry’s adaptive learning products become better thanks to system refinements and more student data, but we also saw adaptive technology reach into new areas of the learning experience, including e-books and virtual labs.
It’s also quickly gaining the confidence of educators. A 2013 Inside Higher Ed survey revealed that 66 percent of college and university presidents see the potential of adaptive learning to make a positive impact on higher education. And while presidents and faculty members don’t always see eye-to-eye on every use of technology, Inside Higher Ed’s survey of faculty members on technology found that 61 percent of instructors believe that adaptive learning has great potential to have a positive impact on higher education. With more data, more applications, better user experiences, and demonstrated efficacy, I think that greater usage of adaptive learning is the biggest lock of 2013-14.
And then, of course: MOOCs. It seems hard to believe now, but my first article one year ago made not one single mention of MOOCs. MOOCs have been a major story for the past year, for better and for worse. The future of MOOCs is still very much unwritten, but the important thing is that we saw a come-from-nowhere technology disrupt higher education, and instead of running away from it, many colleges decided to embrace it.
Over the next year, the hype around MOOCs may fade a bit, but their quality and credibility will increase. MOOCs shouldn't be faulted for not always living up to everyone's hopes in Year 1. Now, with the spotlight a little dimmer, we'll see them better-position students for success by integrating results-driving technologies like adaptive learning and ultimately become a more viable alternative for higher education.
Finally, we've seen institutions use technology to help rethink the very idea of how a higher education institution should operate. I love how Southern New Hampshire University is using technology to shift to a competency-based model, and I expect many more institutions to follow suit over the next year. We've only just started realizing how technology can impact not just the learning experience but the entire structure of the educational system. We might even see top students earning degrees in as little as a year. It’s amazing how the digital transformation can accelerate when colleges begin to think about technology as an organization.
The Road Ahead
When I think about what stands in the way of the shift to digital, I keep coming back to seven deadly words: "We’ve never done it that way before." It’s a type of thinking that is, unfortunately, still too common in education, and one that we must break away from in order to move forward. Because if we hold on to the past we must realize that we're holding onto something that's broken.
One thing, however, should not change, and that's the importance of instructors. There are some who see an inverse relationship between teaching and technology; who believe that adopting technology necessarily means marginalizing the role of the instructor. I just don't see this to be the case. Technology's goal is to help instructors provide more efficient, effective instruction. It's the means, not the end.
A few more things I think we’ll see over the next 12 months:
Major learning companies offering some print products only through a custom or "on demand" model. I can say for sure that this will be the case at McGraw-Hill Higher Education. And one day in the not-so-distant future, we won’t offer those print products at all.
New models for affordable, accredited education. MOOCs won't be the only game in town, as a slate of new players will find a way to deliver high quality, low cost (but not free) higher education that leads to a degree.
More colleges institutionalizing data collection and analysis. These capabilities can't be developed overnight, but in 2013-2014, we'll pass the tipping point of colleges and universities using data to drive what we at McGraw-Hill Education refer to as The Big 3: results, recruitment and retention.
The continued relevance of content. As Peter Kafka of AllThingsD recently tweeted: “Tech guy to content guy: You're screwed! Now, please help me build my business.” Even the best technology in the world still must be paired with trusted, proven content in order to be effective, and I think the future of our industry belongs to companies who can provide the best of both worlds.
Twenty-four months out from the digital deadline, our progress is good. As an industry, we have a clear understanding of the problems we face and how digital technology can help solve them, and there’s a general spirit of collaboration among colleges, learning companies and start-ups that is moving us, together, in the right direction. It’s inspiring, and it’s something I can’t say I’ve ever felt before.
They say that you never notice change happening and then one day it just hits you. Consider this your friendly 24-month warning.
Brian Kibby is president of McGraw-Hill Higher Education.
Going through the offerings of more than 30 university presses for the fall and winter publishing, I kept an eye out for two things. The first was anything of possible interest to readers who don’t come across university press books very often, or ever. Or, to put it another way, the general reader.
From time to time it has pointed out that "the general reader" is a cultural fiction; no such species actually exists, except, perhaps, as a marketing category. And this is true, to a point. We are all, ultimately, specific readers, reading our specific books. Yet quite a few more readers, with a wider range of backgrounds, will be drawn to The Letters of Leonard Bernstein (Yale University Press, Oct.) than to a monograph on West Side Story. (And yes, there is one.)
My other goal was to identify trends or patterns emerging from catalog to catalog. Most proved fairly obvious and come as no surprise – any topic making the front page of the newspaper long enough is taken on eventually. But in a couple of cases, interesting or odd connections among books occurred to me after a third or fourth tour of the listings.
So without further ado, here’s my selection of fall and winter books from American university presses -- compiled by means of hunchwork and caffeine. It won’t be exhaustive. It might get kaleidoscopic. But there’s something here for everyone.
Let’s start with a few forthcoming volumes on “the higher learning in America,” to borrow the title of a book by Thornstein Veblen that the author originally planned to subtitle “A Study in Total Depravity.” However critical he may be of the institution, former Harvard University president Derek Bok probably won’t be that stringent in Higher Education in America (Princeton University Press, Aug.) – a work almost 500 pages long and covering, the publisher says, “the entire system, public and private, from community colleges and small liberal arts colleges to great universities with their research programs and their medical, law, and business schools.”
Jerry Jacobs takes a cold, hard look at a boundary-erasing buzzword with In Defense of Disciplines: Interdisciplinarity and Specialization in the Research University (University of Chicago Press, Oct.). More in the nature of a career guide is Frank Furstenberg’s Behind the Academic Curtain: How to Find Success and Happiness With a Ph.D. (Chicago, Sept.). Please remember: that’s “with,” not “despite.” Postgraduate life would be less like Waiting for Godot if the institution follows the lead of a volume edited by Keith Hoeller called Equality for Contingent Faculty: Overcoming the Two-Tier System (Vanderbilt University Press, Jan.)
Among the titles recalling the scholarly worlds of yesteryear -- erudition unplugged! -- are forthcoming translations of Jürgen Leonhardt’s Latin: Story of a World Language (Harvard University Press, Nov.) and Arlette Farge's The Allure of the Archives (Yale, Sept.) The Library: A World History (Chicago, Nov.) brings together James W. P. Campbell’s knowledge of the history of architecture and Will Pryce’s photography “to tell the story of library architecture around the world and through time in a single volume, from ancient Mesopotamia to modern China and from the beginnings of the written word to the present day.”
Seeking to navigate the passage between dead-tree and new-media cultures we have Comparative Textual Media: Transforming the Humanities in the Postprint Era (University of Minnesota Press, Jan.), a collection of papers edited by N. Katherine Hayles and Jessica Pressman, which argues "for seeing print as a medium along with the scroll, electronic literature, and computer games." A cluster of titles will consider the effect of digitality on personality, though possibly it's the other way around.
Anna Poletti and Julie Rak's edited collection Identity Technologies: Constructing the Self Online (University of Wisconsin Press, Jan.) sounds as if it must overlap somewhat with Howard Gardner and Katie Davis's The App Generation: How Today’s Youth Navigate Identity, Intimacy, and Imagination in a Digital World (Yale, Oct.) and Alice E. Marwick's Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age (Yale, Nov.) Beyond celebrity, publicity, and branding, we seemingly have sainthood in view with Brett T. Robinson's Appletopia: Media Technology and the Religious Imagination of Steve Jobs (Baylor University Press, Aug.).
Digital technology itself continues on course for apotheosis -- omnipresent and pretty nearly omniscient, it hasn't become omnipotent yet, but just you wait. In the meantime, The Intelligent Web: Search, Smart Algorithms, and Big Data (Oxford University Press, Jan.) by Gautam Shroff sounds fascinating and, frankly, scary: a treatment of algorithms that "operate on the vast and growing amount of data on the Web, sifting, selecting, comparing, aggregating, correcting; following simple but powerful rules to decide what matters." The days of thinking of the Internet as some kind of Wild West anarchist frontier have given way to The Global War for Internet Governance (Yale, Jan.), according to Laura DeNardis's study of "the inner power structure already in place within the architectures and institutions of Internet governance." I'm not sure if that argument confirms or undermines military science scholar Thomas Rid's assessment that Cyber War Will Not Take Place(Oxford, Sept.).
Whatever may happen in the quest for artificial intelligence, the human kind retains its mysteries. A Natural History of Human Thinking (Harvard, Feb.) by Michael Tomasello will pull together the evidence for his fairly well-known thesis that we made our evolutionary leap as a species thanks to the survival value of cooperation and empathy. In his Philosophy of Dreams (Yale, Oct.), Christoph Türcke advances the theory that "both civilization and mental processes are the results of a compulsion to repeat early traumas, one to which hallucination, imagination, mind, spirit, and God all developed in response."
Joyce Davidson and Michael Orsini's edited collection Worlds of Autism: Across the Spectrum of Neurological Difference (Minnesota, Nov.) takes issue with the usual conception of autism as a disorder, "instead situating autism within an abilities framework that respects the complex personhood of individuals with autism." Anyone interested in that volume will also want to look for The Arachnean and Other Texts (Minnesota, Oct.), the first English translation of writings by the French psychiatrist and filmmaker Fernand Deligny, who worked with autistic children.
Political Emotions: Why Love Matters for Justice (Harvard, Oct.) is the latest in a series of works by the philosopher Martha C. Nussbaum exploring how affect and public life interact. That question will also to be pursued, from their own disciplinary perspective, by the contributors to Doing Emotions History, edited by Susan Matt and Peter N. Stearns (University of Illinois, Jan.). A number of Nussbaum's recent studies have concerned negative affect -- emotions such as shame and disgust, which push or pull away from social contact -- so her readers may be relieved to think about love for a while. But for those who haven't had their fill of it, there's Valerie Curtis's The Science Behind Revulsion; Don’t Look, Don’t Touch, Don’t Eat (Chicago, Oct.).
There's power and big money to be had from exploiting forms of negative affect, as Jeffrey M. Berry and Sarah Sobieraj will explore in The Outrage Industry: Political Opinion Media and the New Incivility (Oxford, Jan.) -- and on that note, let me invite you back next time, when we'll look ahead to some titles bound to incite as well as stimulate.
Clifford Lynch recently wrote a piece in which he describes the broken promises to libraries surrounding the introduction of e-books. Instead of a cornucopia of books that would be available at lower prices than print and with various new features enabled by digital technology, we have a peculiar situation where many publishers are refusing to sell books to libraries at all, and often when they do indeed sell them, the books are priced higher than their print counterparts and with various new usage restrictions imposed upon them. So the promises of e-books for libraries remain unfulfilled.
Putting aside the question of who made those promises and how they proposed to hold themselves accountable for their fulfillment, Lynch’s comments lead me to wonder if the advent of e-books has been a good or bad thing for university press publishing, a segment in which I have long had a special interest. On balance I would have to say that as dramatic as the introduction of e-books to the academic sector has been, by and large the fortunes of the press world are not appreciably better than they were four years ago -- or six years ago, to begin the count with the launch of the Amazon Kindle, with apologies to Ronald Reagan and his famous (if misleading) four-year formulation. Indeed, university presses seem to be operating under snugger strategic conditions than even a few years ago. E-books haven’t made all that much difference.
Before saying another word, I must make the qualifying remark that there is great diversity among university presses and that generalizations inevitably introduce distortions. The university presses at Cambridge and Oxford are as large as many commercial firms, possess a global footprint, and manage a broad product portfolio. American presses range from under $1 million in revenue to tens of millions; some publish journals while others do not; and some, despite their small size, are healthily profitable. My comments here put Oxford and Cambridge to the side and talk of the other presses in the aggregate -- that is, there may have been winners and losers among them, but what have their fortunes been as a whole?
University presses have a complex business model, unique in the university world as far as I know, that combines earned revenue with various forms of funding that is not derived from the market place. The earned revenue of these publishers is something of a three-legged stool: books, journals and services. Services can take many forms, but the largest service by far is in the distribution of physical goods on behalf of other, smaller presses. Let’s dig into the earned revenue one leg at a time, putting books last.
1. Services. A number of presses distribute books on behalf of other academic publishers, both domestic and international. Historically this has been a good business, as distribution is a game of scale and a small press has anything but scale. This service lowers the cost of distribution to the small-press client (that is, in comparison to having to provide this service for themselves) and provides a profit for the larger press providing the service.
Unfortunately, this activity is now under stress. Sales of printed books are not growing and in many instances are declining. This leads to excess capacity at warehouses and slow-moving inventory (partially offset by the introduction of digital SRP -- short-run printing). On top of this is the entrance into the sector of commercial players, who change the competitive landscape. It is difficult to be optimistic about the long-term prospects for this service.
Presses are also seeking to provide other services, especially digital services, but this will be a steep hill to climb. The problem here is that the competition is everywhere. Do you want to provide print-on-demand services for third parties? Well, you and a dozen other outfits. How about digital asset management, where the provider warehouses digital files that can be accessed and manipulated by clients? Well, you and two dozen other outfits. We needn’t get into file conversion, the creation of ebook apps, or pretty much anything digital. The competition is too keen.
Some presses attempt to provide publishing services to other departments within their institutions. This is a good idea (there is no point in having 20 different people trying to figure out how to convert a PDF to an EPUB file), but the scale is small. Overall, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that income from third-party services will not be an ensured source of funding for presses in the future. And this problem has intensified over the past 4 years–or 6–as print books migrate to digital formats.
2. Journals. Journal publishing over all is a very good business for certain large publishers, and it is still a good business for many university presses. By my estimate, the American presses, taken together, publish about 200 journals; adding Oxford and Cambridge to the mix would add perhaps 600 more. This is out of a universe of approximately 25,000. There is a clear hierarchy in journals publishing. The commercial firms Elsevier, Springer, and John Wiley sit at the top, followed by such firms as Taylor & Francis, Wolters Kluwer, and Sage and the major not-for-profits (e.g., ACS) — and of course Oxford and Cambridge. Below that group are many university presses and professional societies (e.g., AIP, APS). Smaller still are many other professional societies, which may have a tiny portfolio of journals.
The problem for university presses is that the journals business is all about scale and the one thing the presses do not have is scale. Scale permits a publisher to establish a global footprint, to invest in technology, to pay large guarantees to attract professional societies to the roster, and to market the publications into every corner of the marketplace. The journals market is not growing as rapidly as it once did outside of a few notable Gold OA publishers (e.g., PLoS), which in turn has put even greater pressure on publishers to achieve a greater and greater scale, the better to dominate academic library budgets and squeeze out the publications of smaller firms (which are likely in turn to sell out to the larger publishers, thereby increasing the latter publishers’ scale still further, a cycle that is vicious or virtuous depending on which side of the table you sit on).
The race for scale has resulted in the larger publishers poaching the journals formerly handled by many university presses. Thus we have seen a collection of anthropology journals leave the Unviversity of California Press for John Wiley, and Elsevier come bidding for a journal formerly managed by Chicago. Even Oxford is big enough to act as a poacher, sometimes bidding for the publications handled by the smaller presses. Thus the journals segment for university presses (always excepting Oxford and Cambridge) is a less reliable source of income today than it was even a few years ago. Barring a bold new strategy for journals, it is difficult to make a case for growth for any but the largest publishers.
3. Books. What university presses mostly do is publish books. They publish outstanding books and they publish them well. While the book segment is still primarily a print business (about 90 percent), electronic revenue is growing rapidly. There are no presses to my knowledge that are not now publishing ebooks. This is a growth segment, and the presses are understandably proud of it.
Unfortunately, the book business, whether for print or digital works, is a tough one, especially in a segment where some titles may sell as few as 300 copies and a sale of 10,000 copies is a matter of astonishment. The fixed costs of book publishing are simply too high for the small market for scholarly books, and the introduction of ebooks does nothing to whittle away at those fixed costs. Many presses lose money on the sale of books, which in turn puts more pressure to find revenue in the already challenged segments of journals and services.
Another problem for the presses’ foray into ebooks is the dominance of Amazon, which exacts a significant toll from the presses for distribution. Amazon gets more powerful every day and the demands made on tiny scholarly publishers are becoming strident. A dollar taken from the operating margin of a university press is handed over to the shareholders of Amazon, a trend that shows no sign of slowing down. While exceptional editorial talent always finds a way to punch its way through a hostile distribution environment, not all editorial work is exceptional and the energy behind every punch has a cost. Ebooks, in other words, are a good and necessary move for the university press world, but they are not likely by themselves to provide financial stability.
And so all three legs of the three-legged stool are rickety, making the prospects for university press publishing not particularly bright. On the other hand, the prospects are not bleak; the presses continue to earn the bulk of their income from the marketplace (over 90 percent of press budgets are covered by earned income). This contradicts the prevailing narrative, which suggests that university press publishing is doomed, that the presses are losing tons of money, and that only a radical overhaul of the business model can “save” university press publishing. This very point was made to me by a university librarian, who noted that her institution’s press had lost several hundred thousand dollars in the prior year. Good lord, what are we to do? But contrast this with the librarian’s own budget, which entailed a cost to the university of over $30 million. People, some perspective, please! This bringd us back to the point that presses are set up as subsidized profit centers, whereas most university functions are set up as cost centers. Which is the bigger burden to the parent institution, the small subsidy of a profit center or the large budget of a cost center?
Using a yardstick of 4 years -- or 6, or 10 -- we would have to say that the presses’ overall situation has gotten tighter; and we would conclude that the “promise” of e-books (though here again I have to ask who is making these promises) has not meaningfully changed the fortunes of the university press world. This is because electronics are not a strategy; electronics are an enabling technology that has to be put in service to a strategy. If we want to meet Clifford Lynch’s challenge, let’s stand up in front of the whiteboard and do some serious thinking.
As the Obama administration works on a policy to provide free access to taxpayer-funded research, publishers and universities advance competing plans for archives -- but some scholars say a government archive is the way to go.
Submitted by Rob Weir on January 22, 2013 - 3:00am
Stewart Brand is credited with coining the phrase "information wants to be free." In the wake of the suicide of 26-year-old cyber activist Aaron Swartz, we need to re-evaluate that assumption.
Brand, the former editor of The Whole Earth Catalog and a technology early adopter, is a living link between two great surges in what has been labeled "the culture of free": the 1967 Summer of Love and the Age of Information that went supernova in the late 1990s. Each period has stretched the definition of "free."
During the Summer of Love, the Diggers Collective tried to build a money-free enclave in San Francisco’s Haight-Ashbury district. They ran "free" soup kitchens, stores, clinics and concerts. Myth records this as a noble effort that ran aground; history reveals less lofty realities. "Free" was in the eye of the beholder. The Diggers accumulated much of the food, clothing, medicine, and electronic equipment it redistributed by shaking down local merchants like longhaired mob muscle. Local merchants viewed Digger "donations" as a cost of doing business analogous to lost revenue from shoplifting. Somebody paid for the goods; it just wasn’t the Diggers or their clients.
Move the clock forward. Aaron Swartz’s martyr status crystallizes as I type. As the legend grows, Swartz was a brilliant and idealistic young man who dropped out of Stanford and liberated information for the masses until swatted down by multinational corporations, elitist universities, and the government. Faced with the potential of spending decades behind bars for charges related to hacking into JSTOR, a depressed Swartz committed suicide. (In truth, as The Boston Globe has reported, a plea bargain was nearly in place for a four-to-six-month sentence.)
I am sorry that Swartz died, and couldn’t begin to say whether he was chronically depressed, or if his legal woes pushed him over the edge. I do assert, though, that he was no hero. The appropriate label is one he once proudly carried: hacker. Hacking, no matter how principled, is a form of theft.
It’s easy to trivialize what Swartz did because it was just a database of academic articles. I wonder if his supporters would have felt as charitable if he had "freed" bank deposits. His was not an innocent act. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts took the not-unreasonable position that there is a considerable difference between downloading articles from free accounts registered with a university, and purloining 4.8 million documents by splicing into wiring accessed via unauthorized entry into a computer closet. That’s hacking in my book – the moral equivalent of diverting a bank teller with a small transaction whilst a partner ducks behind the counter and liberates the till.
Brand and his contemporaries often parse the definition of free. Taking down barriers and making data easier to exchange is “freeing” in that changing technology makes access broader and cheaper to deliver. Alas, many young people don’t distinguish between "freeing" and "free." Many of my undergrads think nearly all information should come at no cost – free online education, free movies, free music, free software, free video games…. Many justify this as Swartz did: that the value of ideas and culture is artificially inflated by info robber barons.
They’re happy to out the villains: entrenched university administrations, Hollywood producers, Netflix, the Big Three record labels, Amazon, Microsoft, Nintendo, Sega…. I recently had a student pulled from my class and arrested for illegal music downloading. He was considerably less worried than Swartz and pronounced, "I fundamentally don’t believe anyone should ever have to pay for music." This, mind you, after I shared tales of folk musicians and independent artists that can’t live by their art unless they can sell it.
Sorry, but this mentality is wrong. Equally misguided are those who, like Swartz before his death, seek to scuttle the Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect Intellectual Property Act. Are these perfect bills? No. Do they protect big corporations, but do little to shelter the proverbial small fish? Yes. Do we need a larger political debate about the way in which conglomeration has stifled innovation and competition? Book me a front-row seat for that donnybrook. Are consumers of everything from music to access to academic articles being price gouged? Probably. But the immediate possibility of living in a world in which everything is literally free is as likely as the discovery of unicorns grazing on the Big Rock Candy Mountain.
Let’s turn to JSTOR, the object of Swartz’s most recent hijinks. (He was a repeat offender.) JSTOR isn’t popular among librarians seeking subscription money, or those called upon to pay for access to an article (which is almost no one with a university account who doesn’t rewire the network). Many wonder why money accrues to those whose only "creation" is to aggregate the labor of others, especially when some form of taxpayer money underwrote many of the articles. That’s a legitimate concern, but defending Swartz’s method elevates vigilantism above the rules of law and reason. More to the point, reckless "liberation" often does more harm than good.
JSTOR charges university libraries a king’s ransom for its services. Still, few libraries could subscribe to JSTOR’s 1,400 journals more cheaply. (Nor do many have the space to store the physical copies.) The institutional costs for top journals are pricey. Go to the Oxford University Website and you’ll find that very few can be secured for under $200 per volume, and several are over $2,000. One must ultimately confront a question ignored by the culture of free: Why does information cost so much?
Short answer: Because journals don’t grow on trees. It’s intoxicating to think that information can be figuratively and literally free, until one assembles an actual journal. I don’t care how you do it; it’s going to cost you.
I’m the associate editor of a very small journal in the academic pond. We still offer print journals, which entails thousands of dollars in printing and mailing costs for each issue. Fine, you say, print is dead. Produce an e-journal. Would that be "free?" Our editor is a full-time academic. She can only put in the hours needed to sift articles, farm them out for expert review, send accepted articles to copy editors, forward copy to a designer, and get the journal to subscribers because her university gives her a course reduction each semester. That’s real money; it costs her department thousands of dollars to replace her courses. Design, copy editing, and advertising fees must be paid, and a few small stipends are doled out. Without violating confidentiality I can attest that even a modest journal is expensive to produce. You can’t just give it away, because subscribers pick up the tab for everything that can’t be bartered.
Could you do this free online with no membership base? Sure – with a team of editors, designers, and Web gurus that don’t want to get paid for the countless hours they will devote to each issue. Do you believe enough in the culture of free to devote your life to uncompensated toil? (Careful: The Diggers don’t operate those free stores anymore.) By the way, if you want anyone to read your journal, you’ll give it to JSTOR or some other aggregator. Unless, of course, you can drum up lots of free advertising.
The way forward in the Age of Information begins with an honest assessment of the hidden costs within the culture of free. I suggest we retire the sexy-but-hollow phrase “information wants to be free" and resurrect this one: "There’s no such thing as a free lunch." And for hackers and info thieves, here’s one from my days as a social worker: "If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime."
Rob Weir teaches history at Smith College. He is the author of Inside Higher Ed's "Instant Mentor" career advice column.
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.