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How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz

Michael Eisen, Professor of molecular and cell biology | January 25, 2013

As news spread last week that digital rights activist Aaron Swartz had killed himself ahead of a federal trial on charges that he illegally downloaded a large database of scholarly articles with the intent to freely disseminate its contents, thousands of academics began posting free copies of their work online, coalescing around the Twitter hashtag #pdftribute.

This was a touching tribute: a collective effort to complete the task Swartz had tried – and many people felt died trying – to accomplish himself. But it is a tragic irony that the only reason Swartz had to break the law to fulfill his quest to liberate human knowledge was that the same academic community that rose up to support his cause after he died had routinely betrayed it while he was alive.

The most obvious culprit was MIT, whose computer system Swartz used for his downloads. Their decision to make sharing journal articles a criminal matter is inexcusable. But their real betrayal was allowing these articles to fall into private hands in the first place.

Although most academic research is funded by the public, universities all but force their scholars to publish their results in journals that take ownership of the work and place it behind expensive pay walls.

Centuries ago, when printing and mailing paper journals was the most efficient way to disseminate new knowledge, a symbiotic relationship developed between scholars, who had ideas they wanted to share, and publishers, who had printing presses and the means to convey printed works to a wide audience. Transferring copyright to publishers, which protected their ability to recover costs and profit from their investment, was a reasonable price for authors to pay to further their disseminating mission.

But with the birth of the internet, scholars no longer needed publishers to distribute their work. As NYU’s Clay Shirky has noted, publishing went from being an industry to being a button.

Had the leaders of major research universities reacted to this technological transformation with any kind vision, Swartz’s dream of universal free access to the scholarly literature would now be a reality. But they did not. Rather than seize this opportunity to greatly facilitate research and education, both within and outside the academy, they chose instead to reify the status quo.

Instead of encouraging their faculty to make their work widely available, virtually all universities send the unmistakable message to current and aspiring faculty that success in their career depends on publishing in the most high profile place you can. Since the most prestigious journals are generally old, this edict has the effect of stifling innovation in scientific communication. While countless alternatives to the traditional model have arisen, academics in most fields are reluctant to embrace them, fearing that doing so would harm their career prospects.

It is hard to account for this abdication on a university’s basic mission to produce and disseminate knowledge as anything but institutional laziness, as universities essentially farm out responsibility for screening job and promotion candidates to journals.

Absurdly, as soon as the scholarly output of our universities is in the hands of publishers, they immediately buy it back, spending billions of scarce institutional dollars every year in subscription and licensing fees to provide access to students and faculty, but leaving everybody else out in the cold.

Posting our PDFs is all fine and good, but the real way to honor Aaron Swartz is to combat this pervasive institutional fecklessness and do everything in our power to make sure no papers ever end up behind pay walls again. We have to demand that our universities alter their policies to reward, rather than punish, free scholarly publishing, and that they stop cutting the checks that keep this immoral system afloat.

Above all else we need to enshrine the principle that the knowledge produced in the academy is a public good whose value is greatly diminished by turning it into private property. And maybe the next time someone shows up at a university wanting only to spread knowledge, instead of calling the cops, they’ll say “Great, how can we help?”

[Update: I modified the title to reflect the ongoing nature of the betrayal]

My related writing on science publishing:

Cross-posted from Michael Eisen’s blog it is NOT junk  (tag line: a blog about genomes, DNA, evolution, open science, baseball and other important things).

Comments to “How academia betrayed and continues to betray Aaron Swartz

  1. Well, it looks like the forces of marginalization are winning against this post, even though the commoditization of knowledge greatly impedes progress for humanity at a time when we need progress more than ever before. Thus the knowledge elite maximizes its greed with no concern for consequences that place humanity in a condition of increasing peril.

    The worst case consequence is that we still do not have fusion power generation to protect us from increasingly destructive concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere because of the fact that special interests control politicians and scholars who marginalize global warming and prevent solutions, resulting in the creation of increasingly unacceptable climate change consequences that we are already experiencing today.

    So the control of scientific advancement by the power of money over those who control access to knowledge impedes progress for humanity today far worse than religious attacks against science ever have.

    God Help our newest and all future generations.

  2. We must not allow this problem to be marginalized again.

    Two of the root causes of all of our problems today are:

    1. Commoditization of Knowledge, and

    2. Subjugation of Women.

    Either we overcome these problems today, or climate changes shall dominate our future.

  3. While I am quite enthusiastic regarding publishing freely and widely, such activities should be under the same rigorous editorial reviews and scrutinizing processes to minimize (if not to eliminate) junk as academic published data in the internet domain.

  4. As a Berkeley graduate I have been commenting on this blog for years, receiving virtually no responses from Berkeley professors and scholars that I have tried to interact with even though I have posted hundreds of comments.

    I have also noted that virtually no other Cal graduate comments on this blog.

    After having posted hundreds of comments in my dedication to solve problems I have come to the inescapable conclusion that Cal alumni do not comment on this blog because they do not respect Cal professors and scholars who refuse to interact with us to solve our perpetual problems with social intolerance, economic & political exploitation and global warming.

    Indeed, this post by Michael Eisen is a worst case scenario documentation of the most tragic consequences of marginalization by professors, scholars and scientists in universities throughout America.

    One more time, as I have commented already on this and many other posts with no response at all:

    “The #1 Fact of Life is that all the world’s institutions are failing to dedicate themselves to protecting the long-term future of the human race.”

    “This occurred in addition to the fact that President Eisenhower also gravely warned us about some of the same issues in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation”

    One specific warning was “The prospect of domination of the nation’s scholars by Federal employment, project allocations, and the power of money is ever present – and is gravely to be regarded” and even Ike has been marginalized by the establishment.

  5. We need a national dialogue on the practice of piling on charges to coerce defendants into accepting unjust plea bargains.

    The prosecution was apparently in the business of annihilation. Swartz faced spiritual annihilation and financial annihilation, with no viable means of escape. To my mind, our justice system is out of control. The prosecution took leave of their senses. Unfortunately, this kind of tragedy is all too commonplace, and most of the time goes unreported.

    The suicide of Aaron Swartz in the face of the appalling over-reach of unchecked discretionary prosecutorial power highlights a much larger problem that pervades our legal system.

    The entire US legal system (including criminal, civil, and family court divisions) is routinely used in an outrageously abusive manner.

    Those who are traumatized, stigmatized, or victimized by such shenanigans within the legal system may suffer what has come to be called Legal Abuse Syndrome.

    In the field of Medicine, every proposed treatment or cure has to be carefully studied and reviewed to ensure that it has demonstrated therapeutic value, and does not inadvertently spread, exacerbate, or even cause the malady it sets out to treat. In the medical literature, a treatment is called “iatrogenic” if it is counter-productive to the primary objective of curing disease.

    The field of Law does not employ such safeguards, and as a result a substantial fraction of our public policies and practices, operating under the color of law, turn out to be iatrogenic — ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst.

    Alan Simpson, the retired Senator from Wyoming, spent some three decades in Congress, during which time he helped craft and enact a great deal of legislation. But after he retired, he remarked that during his tenure in Washington politics, he discovered a law, the way a scientist would discover a natural law. Simpson said he discovered the Law of Unintended Consequences, meaning that the actual outcome of legislation, passed in good faith with an expectation of curing one of society’s ills, frequently turned out to have unanticipated, unexpected, and undesirable consequences. In science, if one is relying on a theoretical model, and the actual outcome of an experiment does not jibe with that predicted by the model, one is obliged to discard the model as unreliable.

    Our governmental systems are rife with unreliable models which give rise to unwise practices, many of which are ineffective at best and counter-productive at worst. We have built governmental systems that lack viable safeguards against iatrogenic treatments of many of our most problematic social ills.

    Here is an example of the kind of scholarly article one might find on JSTOR (which recently relaxed it policies to make many more of them freely available without a costly institutional subscription): “Punishment and Violence: Is the Criminal Law Based on One Huge Mistake?” by James Gilligan, Harvard University; published in the Journal of Social Research, Fall 2000.

    • Barry, very well said.

      The #1 Fact of Life is that all the world’s institutions are failing to dedicate themselves to protecting the long-term future of the human race. The U.N. was supposed to do it but even our government is marginalizing the IPCC on global warming so they can’t make any real progress with the necessary sense of urgency.

      To make things worse, our scientists and academics marginalize the public to the point where they are marginalized by the public, making it all too easy for corrupt politicians to destroy progress.

      There has to be a way to save the human race, but we don’t have a clue on how to produce worldwide cooperation with the current leaders.

      Our only hope is that the newest generations will take their future into their own hands, and use the newest worldwide communications technologies, that are available for the first time in history, to save themselves because all previous generations have totally failed to produce an acceptable quality of life legacy for them.

  6. Crystal clear and courageous, Michael. Universities do not manufacture widgets and the like. They create knowledge. Most of this knowledge is research funded by the public. It is an unspoken contract: We taxpayers pay for the research and, in turn, you researchers let us know what you have learned.

  7. One of the worst institutional failures that works against humanity is political, academic and scientific marginalization. The death of Aaron Swartz is a worst case scenario consequence, and the lives of all humanity are also at increasing risk because of marginalization, and the culture of fear and hate that we never overcome.

    Charles Keeling was academically and scientifically marginalized by the UC establishment as he had to fight many times to gain and maintain funding so he could measure CO2 to prove his Global Warming theory. Keeling proved his theory, but his theory is still being politically marginalized because the credibility of the scientific community is itself too easily marginalized by politicians and their special interest owners, including CO2 producers. The future of the human race is increasingly threatened because of this cultural failure, and it is imperative that the academic community upgrade its cultural values, especially including integrity and morals, with the greatest sense of urgency for this reason also.

    Linus Pauling was also marginalized by the UC establishment because he crusaded for liberal causes, especially World Peace when it was politically very dangerous for him to do so. And even though Prof. Pauling won two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry and Peace, he was forced to leave the UC system. This occurred in addition to the fact that President Eisenhower also gravely warned us about some of the same issues in his 1961 Farewell Address to the Nation. Tragically, President Eisenhower’s warnings are still being marginalized and humanity is at gravely increasing risk because of that marginalization.

    Will we implement better ways to meet the challenges of change or shall we continue to perpetuate our most threatening cultural failures until we run out of opportunities and time to produce an acceptable quality of life legacy for our newest and future generations?

  8. Thanks — written with a warm pen and a thinking heart. Such a legend never dies, with every new, fair and just article that I read about AAron, I find him burying deeper in my heart..Aaron belongs to the world now.

  9. If everyone self-published, where would the notion of (and the reliability promised by) “peer-review” go? I gather from your other article (Peer review is f***ed up – let’s fix it) that you are not happy with it. Would science be better off without it AT ALL?

    • i agree, self-published means no peer review, which will turn the scientific society into a mess and lots of non authorities will post “likely right” information online

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