Open access to scientific publications: Two views of an incident
Center for American Progress blogger contrasts with two New York Times writers
August 5, 2011Published: August 5, 2011
By Steven T. Corneliussen
In 1964, US presidential candidate Barry Goldwater famously exclaimed, “I would remind you that extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice! And let me remind you also that moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue!”
In the internet age, what about extremism in the purported defense of information openness, or immoderation in its purported pursuit? Those questions matter for the scientific publishing enterprise in the current case of Aaron Swartz. This media report contrasts responses to that incident from the Center for American Progress, run by John Podesta, a former Clinton White House chief of staff, and the New York Times.
But first, the basic facts about the incident. They’re complicated. Here’s how John Schwartz of the Times reported them two weeks ago in a back-pages article headlined “Open-access advocate is arrested for huge download”:
A federal indictment unsealed in Boston on Tuesday morning on charges that the researcher, Aaron Swartz, broke into the computer networks at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to gain access to JSTOR, a nonprofit online service for distributing scholarly articles online, and downloaded 4.8 million articles and other documents—nearly the entire library....
In 2008, Mr. Swartz released a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” calling for activists to “fight back” against the sequestering of scholarly papers and information behind pay walls....
So the incident involves two issues. One is computer hacking, a notable topic in nonscience news lately, as well as in the brouhaha-inducing theft of email messages from University of East Anglia climate researchers in late 2009. The other is open access to scientific publications, an issue regularly portrayed in the media—including some science-community media—as a simple matter of justice: Given that taxpayers fund most scientific work, why not unfetter public access to the research by placing it freely online?
The Swartz incident calls to mind cautions about that view, including arguments such as those from H. Frederick Dylla, executive director of the American Institute of Physics—a not-for-profit publisher of scientific journals and also Physics Today. Dylla regularly reminds people that
- “unfettered” simply cannot mean costless, and that
- someone has to pay to transform research into peer-reviewed and professionally edited, produced, indexed, and archived publications, and that
- what’s needed for science’s diversity of publications is sensible “access with sustainable business models.”
But little of this reasoning seems engaged or accounted for in a new online posting from Science Progress, part of the Center for American Progress (CAP). The advisory board at Science Progress includes the former presidential science adviser Neal Lane, Google’s chief internet evangelist Vinton G. Cerf, and Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science magazine.
CAP’s assistant editor for online outreach and analytics Andrea Peterson contributed the posting. Consider its headline’s special treatment of the verb: “Swartz ‘steals’ for science.” Does that hint at extremism in the purported defense of information openness, or at immoderation in its purported pursuit?
Peterson speaks of an “ongoing conflict between the commercialization of public information and the movement to use technology to democratize information access.” Reverting again to freighted quotation marks on a verb, she observes that
if Swartz’s goal were to "liberate" the research he downloaded from JSTOR by allowing its free circulation on the Internet, it is hard to argue the authors, the scientific process, and society as a whole would do anything but gain as the result.
She asserts, “Currently, scholarly research is trapped in an academic-commercial publishing complex run by for-profit publishers.” (What about the not-for-profit ones?) Peterson continues:
Much of the research held there is supported by public funds, but in the academic publishing world neither the authors nor peer-reviewers are generally compensated, with the profits going to the commercial publishers or databases such as JSTOR who act as gate keepers to the wealth of public domain academic knowledge that many would argue should be available to all.
Peterson backs off from any hints of extremism or immoderation near the end of her posting, which includes the frequently seen conflation of research and the finished products of scientific publishing:
This is not an endorsement of Swartz’s alleged actions—he may well be convicted for his law breaking. But at the end of the day, we should take this as an opportunity to evaluate how a perhaps profoundly broken system limits scientific innovation and hinders the public’s access to research it often has already paid for.
“Profoundly broken system”? Two writers at the New York Times seem unwilling to go that far.
John Schwartz’s Times piece—the one quoted above—ends with what amounts to a note of restraint:
Carl Malamud, an online activist who worked with Mr. Swartz on the court-documents project, called Mr. Swartz “one of the Internet’s most talented programmers,” but said that “the JSTOR situation is very disturbing.”
And then there are two excerpts quoted from Noam Cohen’s 25 July Times piece. They escalate from a sense of restraint to a bit of light satire. The headline uses quotation marks to convey skepticism: “‘Free culture’ advocate may pay high price.” And the article opens with this satirically loaded anecdote:
A guy walks into a candy store and sees one of those “leave a penny, take a penny” trays. He picks it up, cups his hands and asks, “What can I get for 68 cents?”
That image came to mind with the case of Aaron Swartz, a 24-year-old agitator for free access to information on the Internet who managed to download more than four million articles and reviews onto his laptop computers from a subscription-only digital storehouse. The material was from some of the most prestigious—and expensive—scientific and literary journals in the world.
Like the penny opportunist, Mr. Swartz was invited to sample the wares of the nonprofit online collection JSTOR, and he interpreted that invitation quite expansively.
Steven T. Corneliussen, a media analyst for the American Institute of Physics, monitors three national newspapers, the weeklies Nature and Science, and occasionally other publications. His reports to AIP are published in "Science and the media." He has published op-eds in the Washington Post and other newspapers, has written for NASA's history program, and is a science writer at a particle-accelerator laboratory.