Aaron Swartz reminds us of change needed in academic journals

should be angry with Aaron Swartz.

As an Internet visionary and activist, Swartz has an association with everything from RSS feeds to Reddit and the campaign against SOPA. At one point, Swartz downloaded a huge portion of the academic database JSTOR, supposedly with the intention of releasing it for free on a file-sharing site. U.S. attorneys threw the book at him, bringing up charges worth up to 35 years in prison.

Before the charges could go through, Swartz committed suicide on Jan. 11.

I should be angry.

He stole the hard work of researchers like myself.

I should be furious.

But I’m not.

In fact, a small part of me wants to cheer for his cause.

It’s tempting to treat Swartz like just another Internet pirate, but there is an important distinction between the pirating of a scholarly article and the pirating of, say, a movie: The creator of the scholarly article is not harmed directly (or, arguably, indirectly) by pirating his work. I do not know off-hand of a single research journal that pays the authors of its articles. Not one. Piracy does not result in “lost sales” for the author because there was nothing sold in the first place.

I once refereed a paper (I was the peer in the “peer-review process”). I didn’t get paid for that either.

Publishing, refereeing and editing articles are all part of the duty of being an academic, often subsidized by our salaries. The benefit we gain from these duties is largely in terms of prestige: It’s a big deal to get published in a top-tier journal. It’s a stamp on your career saying yes, you have done good work. That has its personal importance for obtaining tenure, but, really, as soon as the article has been published and the stamp given, academics have reaped most of the benefits they can.

Let me be clear, though: Had Swartz publicly released those files, it certainly would have harmed someone. Piracy harms the publishers of academic journals and archives like JSTOR. But it does not directly harm academics themselves. If anything, the sudden easy access to scholarly work would be a boon to many academics, especially those working from smaller universities that can’t afford the high price of research journals.

That’s why part of me wants to cheer for what Swartz did (even though JSTOR is far better than, say, Elsevier, which I have written about in the past). I did not write those articles to sit behind a paywall and be ignored; I want them to be read, used and improved by my fellow researchers.

For a long time, journals and their associated costs were necessary to disseminate results. The easiest way to communicate with the community of researchers across the world was to publish in a widely read journal. The journal would then be printed on high-quality paper, bound up nicely and shipped around the globe. All of this took a fair amount of money.

Today, there are far easier ways of making one’s work known. The Internet is a vast, and vastly more cost-efficient, disseminator of academic work. The practice of uploading completed drafts of papers to publicly accessible archives or personal Web pages has become widespread. Of the eight papers I have written, only one is not available to the public in some form.

Journals do still serve a purpose: quality control. Journals stake their reputation on the quality of articles inside. They employ editors and referees to make sure that someone with knowledge in that area has reviewed the content of each article they publish.

As we reach further into the digital age and the need for printing journals diminishes, how much of the remaining cost of publication is necessary? Can all of it be shifted onto pro bono work by the academic community, much as refereeing is already? Should it?

To give a better idea of how tectonic a shift is occurring in the publishing circles right now, I recently saw support from a noted mathematician for epijournals. Epijournals are bare-bones journals, little more than a collection of links to articles held at public archives. But the epijournals would still enforce quality standards.

The shift in journals’ focus from dissemination to quality control is happening — slowly but steadily, it is. The economic mechanisms have not yet been worked out. Different journals are experimenting in different techniques to keep themselves solvent while lowering the cost of access.

But many other journals are digging their heels in, keeping to unsustainable business models, and the academic community is being hurt by it. They need a swift kick in the rump.

And I’m almost sorry that Swartz wasn’t able to deliver it.

Joseph is a graduate student in Mathematics. He can be reached at vandehe2@dailyillini.com.