Profit or perish: Academia for a high price

Recently, the internet activist and former co-owner of Reddit Aaron Swartz was arrested on numerous charges stemming from his alleged download of around four million articles from the academic journal database JSTOR. Fearing that Swartz would release the papers to the public via p2p file-sharing networks, authorities moved quickly to bring Swartz into custody. Incensed by this incident, another activist by the name of Gregory Maxwell went through with a release of 18,582 academic articles via the notable torrent site

Along with uploading the torrent file, Maxwell included a lengthy manifesto outlining his philosophy on the subject. Maxwell declares, “Academic publishing is an odd system, the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers … and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers. And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete. As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models.

The “publish or perish” pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position … The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific inquiry … unlike ‘mere’ works of entertainment, liberal access to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued survival may even depend on it.”

It is worth noting that JSTOR, while finding itself the target of these releases, is actually a non-profit entity presumably founded as a public resource. For instance a more appropriate target would be the for-profit academic publishing company Wiley-Blackwell. Even if we take Maxwell’s arguments to heart, it is difficult to imagine attacking one of the few organizations associated with academic publishing that retains a shred of legitimacy in its claim to act in the public interest. This does not absolve JSTOR of possible responsibility in the case of arbitrarily restricting access to information, but as an organization operating within the greater paradigm of a capitalist society, it is conceivable that such an organization might need to charge in order to sustain itself.

Philosophically, it seems to me that Maxwell’s arguments are fundamentally correct. The assumptions of modern society about ownership and property are, broadly speaking, rooted in a pre-digital age and require revision if not outright reimagining. Reactionary institutions, in this case the publishers, have been using their influence to undertake this reimagining in lieu of the public, in court – in order to inject inappropriate and antiquated notions of property into the future. Maxwell and other “hacktivists,” are gradually falling victim to a digital enclosure movement, designed to bring the internet “frontier” under control.

Historically the exchange of information has played a vital role in the development of the species. The rise of modern science, the most significant achievement of the human race, would have been impossible without the free spread of ideas. Scientific inquiry demands constant experimentation and comparison of hypotheses about the world with results. Without a community of scholars working in concert, sharing the information garnered to construct a coherent picture of the world, research would become difficult if not impossible. In short, Science is a social project. The self-serving modality of information distribution that the publishers are advancing is inimical to both the methods and aim of science.

In light of this, it seems to me that the current system of academic publishing is highly dysfunctional, carcinogenic – an overall hindrance to scholarship. Carving up and apportioning knowledge, especially knowledge paid for by the public dime, can only have negative consequences in the future. Here at NKU, the student should keep in mind the growing cost of providing access to information in their field. Budget shortfalls created by the exorbitant price for access to materials will have to be made up elsewhere, to the detriment of students. This could be an unfair caricature of the industry; nevertheless, a more vacuous system could hardly be intentionally devised.