File Sharing, Open Access and the Pace of Change in Academic Publishing

Image of Aaron Swartz

Digital file sharing has undoubtedly altered the landscape of music distribution. However, similar changes have not occurred within the realm of academic publishing. What might be dubbed as academic piracy was rarely heard of until the recent death of Aaron Swartz. Before his death Swartz was facing the possibility of a lengthy prison sentence for allegedly unlawfully downloading roughly 4 million journal articles from JSTOR. The prosecution believed he had intended to freely distribute the articles online. In a tribute to Swartz some academics are posting their articles online for free. This is likely in violation of the agreements they signed with publishers in some cases.

One of the galvanizing slogans of tech activists is that "information wants to be free", which to some extent aligns with the goals of Open Access publishing. However there are clearly different approaches to removing the barriers that exist around academic information. The website the Cost of Knowledge is the home an ongoing organized boycott of the publisher Elsevier by over 13,000 academics in response to the publisher's business practices. In particular Elsevier's support of the now defeated research works act, which would have been a major setback for the open access movement, played an important role in sparking the academic spring movement. Libraries, publishers, academics and governments have taken what may seem like the long road to broad access. Institutional Repositories work to make versions of published articles openly available by navigating the permissions that exist between publisher and author. Open Access journals are built from the ground up to provide open access to their contents, and are often supplemented by publishing fees. These movements may to some still seem like a somewhat radical response to the crisis of access that exists in the world of scholarly publishing. However, taking a moment to reflect on the open access movement in light of recent events makes it clear that these approaches seem much less radical than the changes that reshaped distribution in the entertainment industry, the downloading and distribution of millions of articles from JSTOR, or the decision by a researcher to simply post their article on a website for anyone to access regardless of their publication agreement. The question I would like to end with is this: How far should we be willing to go to make knowledge openly available?

I would like to add a link to another post that was shared with me that  I think is worth reading.