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Archaeology, Open Access, and the Passing of Aaron Swartz

I don’t post to this blog as much as I used to, but every once in a while there are some developments in the world of data sharing and scholarly communications that I think worthwhile discussing with respect to archaeology. This blog post is an attempt to gather my thoughts on the issue of Open Access in advance of a forum on the subject that will be held at the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) annual meeting in Honolulu in April.

Yesterday, I learned that Aaron Swartz committed suicide at age 26. Aaron Swartz was active and prominent in many “open knowledge” efforts.  I had no real personal connection with him, and only remember meeting him once at a party thrown by Creative Commons in 2006 or so. I had no idea he was so young. His tragic death is reverberating around a community of activists that value sharing of knowledge and a free and open internet.

What does all this have to do with archaeology?

The story of Swartz’s death involves JSTOR. Most archaeologists have some familiarity with JSTOR, the online journal repository. JSTOR was originally funded by the Mellon Foundation. In some ways it is a resounding success, as it serves many, many scholars worldwide, including many archaeologists. Unlike many digital scholarly communications initiatives, JSTOR is also financially “sustainable.” It is held up as a model for how to do digital scholarship right. It serves a large community and does not have to come back year after year begging for more grant money. JSTOR’s revenues come largely from subscriptions. If you don’t have an affiliation with a subscribing institution to JSTOR, you don’t get access to the vast majority of its resources. In other words, JSTOR sustains itself by setting up a “pay wall.”  That pay wall blocks some 150 million attempts to access JSTOR every year.

Here’s where this ties back to Aaron Swartz. Swartz was caught attempting a mass download of some 4.8 million articles from the JSTOR repository via MIT’s network. To JSTOR’s great credit, it did not pursue charges against Swartz. However, MIT and the US Dept of Justice come out looking far worse. US prosecutors charged Swartz with criminal hacking, and he faced 35(!) years in federal prison. Essentially, US prosecutors charged Swartz with terrorism (see Lessig’s excellent account), all for downloading academic articles in a manner that did not damage MIT’s network or JSTOR (see this expert witness). According to Swartz’s family, this legal hounding directly (and understandably) motivated his suicide.

This is obviously a tragic case, and another sad example of routine abuse of the legal system with regard to intellectual property and computer crime. JSTOR did not want to threaten Swartz with 35 years of prison for downloading articles. But, in the end, that did not matter. He still faced a draconian prison term, roughly equivalent to the punishment for 2nd degree murder, because he violated network rules and barriers JSTOR put into place around research materials.

And that’s the crux of the problem, and why Open Access is  one of the key ethical issues now faced by archaeology. Pay walls and intellectual property barriers carry real, and clearly very oppressive, legal force. I doubt, the SAA, the Archaeological Institute for America (AIA), or the American Anthropological Association (AAA) would want to press for felony charges or long prison terms if someone illegally downloaded a journal article from one of their servers. Nevertheless, Swartz’s case demonstrates that such barriers clearly carry dire legal implications.

There are many excellent reasons to promote Open Access in archaeology, summarized in this recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to the subject. But the Swartz case helps to highlight another. Professional society reluctance (in the case of the SAA) or outright opposition against Open Access (AIA, AAA) puts many researchers at risk. Many researchers, particularly our colleagues in public, CRM, and contract archaeology or our colleagues struggling as adjunct faculty, either totally lack or regularly lose affiliations with institutions that subscribe to pay-wall resources like JSTOR. Many of these people beg logins from their friends and colleagues lucky enough to have access. Similarly, file-sharing of copyright protected articles is routine. Email lists and other networks regularly see circulation of papers, all under legally dubious circumstances. Essentially, we have a (nearly?) criminalized underclass of researchers who bend and break rules in order to participate in their professional community. It is a perverse travesty that we’ve relegated essential professional communications to an quasi-legal/illegal underground, when we’re supposedly a community dedicated to advancing the public good through the creation of knowledge about the past.

We have to remember, we, as a discipline work in the public interest. Public funding directly (grants) or indirectly (heritage management laws) supports, permits, and regulates our efforts. Doesn’t it make more sense to remove barriers to scholarship and remove harsh legal threats to sharing research?

Of course, many would say this is utopian and not financially sustainable, and that the only way to finance high-quality publication in archaeology is through pay walls and the commoditization of our discipline’s intellectual property. But commoditization has its costs. We have a model for totally privatized and commoditized archaeology that is “financially sustainable” in that it does not require any input of public or philanthropic funding. It’s called the antiquities trade. And it is ugly and destructive.

It’s time we also start seeing the ugliness in the current dissemination status quo, where the information outputs of archaeology become privatized, commoditized, intellectual property. This status quo carries the baggage of a legally oppressive system of copyright control, surveillance, and draconian punishments. Rather than dismissing Open Access off-hand, we have an ethical obligation to at least try to find financially sustainable modes of Open Access publication (see Lake 2012,  Kansa 2012 [pay-wall][open-access pre-print]).

Swartz’s tragic case demonstrates that some models of financial sustainability are not worth the cost.

Update:

Thanks for all the retweets, comments, and discussion. Please constantly pressure professional societies, universities, an government to make research dissemination more just. Also, I was wrong about the severity of Swartz’s threatened punishment. It would have been better for him to have been accused of murder, selling slaves, or helping terrorists build a nuclear bomb.  A complete travesty of justice that taints Academia.

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