Monday, January 14, 2013
I've written before about open access, perhaps to a degree obsessively, and I try not to repeat myself too much here (which is getting difficult as the years go on, to be sure). But I do have to take this occasion to once again say how very important is this issue, how very fundamental to what ought to be the ethic of science.
Some readers may be fully involved in this issue, may completely understand what was at stake for this young man who took his own life this weekend, and why he did the deed that had MIT and the U.S. attorney pursuing him like the furies, trying to destroy his life and career by imprisoning him for 35 years. Here's his manifesto.
In my own words, subscriptions to scientific journals cost hundreds of dollars a year -- or more. In fact, the library at my own elite Ivy League university has cancelled many of them recently because we can't afford it. Nevertheless, we still have thousands of journal subscriptions and I get to read them all because I have the magical powers of a college professor in a wealthy country at a wealthy university. You, however -- be you the common rabble in our wealthy country, or an academic department chair in Kenya or the Dominican Republic, do not get to read them. Most of the research that they publish was paid for by taxpayers, but it does not belong to the taxpayers. It belongs to people who own for-profit academic publishing companies, that in turn sell it -- for their own profit -- only to those institutions that can afford the exorbitant prices their monopoly power enables them to charge.
This is wrong. Scientific knowledge is the common property of humanity. The right way to do this is to include the cost of publication in the original grant that funds the research. That's how the Public Library of Science, BMJ Open Access, Dove Press, Biomed Central, and other completely legitimate open access scientific publishers work. Yes, we pay them to publish our stuff, but they still have rigorous peer review and high editorial standards -- higher, in fact, than the subscription model publishers in many cases. The reason for that is obvious: they have to spend the money on editorial costs instead of lining their owners' pockets; they have to compete for the best research because the people who do that excellent research are paying for publication; and they have to prove their quality and integrity every day. Best of all, everybody in the world with an Internet connection can read the work.
Mr. Swartz downloaded thousands of copyrighted academic publications from an archive called JStor. But he didn't try to sell them, he just tried to make a point. Knowledge belongs to humanity. For this, the U.S. Attorney and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hounded him to death. Rapists and murderers don't get 35 years.
Update: In response to an anonymous commenter, I should also add that I, like almost all researchers, freely share my own work with anyone who asks for it. You can go to my academic web page, see my publications, and if you send me an e-mail, you'll get the PDF. That's just one more thing that's ridiculous about this entire issue.