The (current) limits of open access and #PDFtribute

EDIT [18/1/13]: At almost exactly the same time as I was posting about how the revolution was coming, the revolution started.  Mathematicians are setting up community-run, open access journals independent of larger publishers.

I had never heard of Aaron Swartz before he died.  Swartz was 2 1/2 years younger than me and spent his life working on, with, and around the internet and its various limitations.  I have a lot of respect for what he accomplished, not only in terms of the technical progress that he was a part of, but also because of his philosophy about open access to information.  In the wake of his death, supporters took to Twitter to post free copies of their publications, whether or not the material was in the public domain.  This reflects Swartz’s actions in downloading millions of academic papers from the MIT network which precipitated the court case that he was fighting when he chose to end his life.

However, while I agree with his philosophy (as I have mentioned before), I cannot agree with his actions.  While I agree with the sentiment behind #PDFtribute, I cannot take part because it is not legal.  Everybody should have access to food and water, but you should not go stealing from supermarkets to give to the poor.  In the same way, everybody should have access to information, but you cannot steal it from companies who control the copyright.  The answer lies not in the Robin Hood approach, but in a democratic and legal revolution in the way that we think about academic publishing.

The university at which I work was recently given a considerable sum of money to pay for open access publishing for all articles published as a result of UK Government funding as part of a national scheme.  The idea is that, rather than simply publishing for free in a journal that is not readily accessible without extortionate fees ($30 per article is about average, I think) the academic will either publish in the same journal but pay an article processing charge which results in the article being freely available online, or select an alternative journal that offers such an option.  Here we have, then, a system which is changing.  I will not argue that it is going to be anywhere near perfect, and I am certain that there are additional advances that we can make to ensure that maximum access to information is assured, but this is no small victory.

Here’s a short video explaining why this kind of open access is necessary:


3 thoughts on “The (current) limits of open access and #PDFtribute

  1. Hey Chris,

    Maybe it’s the chaotic good side of me trumping the lawful good side, but I feel that the actions of Aaron Swartz and #PDFtribute are justified and important, and should be supported. While we shouldn’t rob supermarkets to provide food and water to the poor, we also shouldn’t live in a society where food and water are made to be so expensive that the poor have absolutely no access to it, besides what scraps they can beg off people. It’s great that the UK is funding this publishing scheme, and I completely support that method 100% and think it is the ideal method. However, open access to journal articles, as made possible by the internet and recent advances in technology, is a relatively new thing, and not fully supported by a critical mass of people. The best comparison I can make is with music or film. When Napster and peer to peer file sharing first arrived on the scene, it was deemed a terrible criminal activity, and all the corporate giants fought tooth and nail to prevent it. However, it grew and became quite common, and these same corporate giants had to face a new reality that the old methods did not work anymore, and that they had to adapt and give the people what they wanted (or at least a close approximation). As a result, we have iTunes, we have Netflix, we have streaming TV and Music sites that give tiered memberships, providing access to an abundance of entertainment with or without commercials and advertisements (some of them providing all the content for free, and making money off the adds). Yes, piracy still exists, and it’s still illegal and still a problem, but these battles have shown that the best way forward is to open up the material to an extent. People are going to find ways around it, so you might as well give it to them in a manner that meets their needs but is still on your terms.

    But before we can reach that point, the journal companies need to see that a critical mass of people want access to the papers, and that they are going to get it regardless of whether it is legal or illegal. That puts pressure on the governments and on the companies to find ways to meet the needs and demands of the people, while still making a profit. One man downloading and sharing four million articles is a criminal. Four million people downloading and sharing one article is a statement; one that the companies and governments would be hard pressed to ignore.

  2. > you should not go stealing from supermarkets to give to the poor.
    > In the same way, everybody should have access to information, but
    > you cannot steal it from companies who control the copyright.

    this is a basic misunderstanding of intellectual property concepts, which continues to hamper reform efforts in this area. It’s also the terminology (“theft”) used by the copyright lobby and by Carmen Ortiz / DOJ’s statements when indicting and pursuing Aaron Swartz said, and which Swartz, JSTOR and many others specifically objected to.,

    • I thought that I had stated the concept of intellectual property in the way that the legal system views the concept? I’m not saying that I agree with that definition – it was a simple analogy. I was referring to the specific case of academic publishing, where an author often signs-away many rights to the work that has been produced. To then post that work freely available on the internet is a breach of copyright. The analogous situation is for a baker to produce bread to be sold in a supermarket but then to take a loaf off the supermarket shelf and give it away. However, when you look at the situation more closely, you realise that the author holds more rights than are commonly realised (

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