The controversy regarding Harvard fellow Aaron Swartz‘s alleged hacking into the MIT network to gain access to the JSTOR archive of academic journals has been widely in the news in the recent days (The New Yorker has a useful outline of the story). More interesting than the case itself, however, is the prevailing logic of academic publishing that is at the root of the incident.
At least in Europe most scientific research is still being funded mainly by the state. This makes perfect sense since the scientific method itself is inherently public. But it also gives commercial publishers of academic journals, and archivers such as JSTOR who sell subscriptions to these journals, the chance to profit on the tax-payer’s expense.
The typical procedure of academic publication has three steps:
- A research project produces a scientific article.
- The article is submitted to an academic journal for peer-review and publication for which the journal often takes a fee.
- The institution behind the research project pays for a subscription to the journal to gain a limited access to the published article, available only to those who are affiliated with the institute.
So, in the worst case scenario, the tax-payer has to pay three times for the same article and even then doesn’t get access to it. Institutions engaged in scientific research are typically forced to subscribe to a large number of journals since the researchers need them for reference, and this is where the archivers come into picture. Thus, the publishers and the archivers of academic journals are able to take advantage of their monopoly position to leech money out of publicly funded institutions.
And that’s not all. A large part of the articles in the JSTOR archive are actually from the public domain, including most of the catalog of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, dating all the way back to year 1665. Thus, JSTOR is profiting on historical documents whose copyright has long since expired and which should by all intents and purposes be made available to all as a part of our shared heritage.¹ And this is from an establishment that claims to be a “not-for-profit organization helping the academic community use digital technologies to preserve the scholarly record and to advance research and teaching in sustainable ways.”
Despite the recent proliferation of open access publishing, the ongoing privatization of universities is likely to lead to even more restrictions to the access to scientific publications. This can be seen as a kind of censorship, imposed to advance private interests.
(You can sign a petition in support of Aaron Swartz here.)
¹ Greg Maxwell was upstanding enough to make a chunk of these available as a torrent.