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The Tyranny of Evil Academe

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October 2012
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ENOUGH.

A recent blog post entitled “Academic paywalls mean publish and perish” was so filled with shortsightedness and misinformation that I was shaking my head while reading both the blog and many of the comments which followed.

Let’s get a few things straight:

Watch out Sheriff of JSTORingham!

1. Aaron Swartz:  The blog begins by setting up Aaron Swartz as a misunderstood do-gooder, a Robin Hood of the research community who battles black hearted villains such as…GASP….the tyrannical JSTOR.

Complete and utter hogwash.

What Mr. Swartz is alleged to have done was a criminal act.  Period.  He knew it as he (allegedly) committed the act or else why use a fake name to log in to MIT’s network (Gary Host or “GHost”…very mysterious 007 stuff)? Why (allegedly) hide your face from security cameras behind a bike helmet as you enter the facility?  What do you have to hide?  Anyone attempting to excuse his actions because you think there is some kind of moral high ground is using a cheap argument and only ends up looking foolish.  You may not like that there are restrictions in place; you may feel that JSTOR and their publishing partners price articles too highly; you may be the biggest open access advocate in the world. None of that matters.

Let me share with you something any small child knows:

STEALING IS WRONG.  BREAKING THE LAW IS NOT OK.

Hey, I think my cable TV bill is too high and I can’t wait for the DVD release, but I REALLY need to watch Game of Thrones NOW, so I’ll steal cable or find a way to view a pirated copy.

The price of gas is unfair and it’s really all a massive conspiracy run by the big oil companies, so I’ll siphon some gas from the tank of a car in a parking lot.

Some of my tax dollars subsidize farmers, so I’ll just walk out of the supermarket without paying for these vegetables.

Wait, I can’t do any of that?  REALLY?! <—- Sarcasm.

Let’s not make Mr. Swartz out to be some kind of victim or martyr here.

If you feel there is a problem with current access to scholarly material there are more constructive, ethical and legal ways to do something about it.  This is why I have a great deal of respect for individuals behind the open access movement such as Peter Binfield, Harold Varmus, and Vitek Tracz.   Others such as Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar who push for the adoption of altmetrics and more openness in scholarly publishing also fall into this category for me.  Victor Henning of Mendeley and others who have developed new tools that allow researchers to work more efficiently make the grade as well.

Guess what?  I don’t agree with or support everything all of those I’ve mentioned are proponents of

but I respect them.

Their beliefs are so strong that they’ve decided to do something (LEGALLY) to change the system.  They’ve invested a great deal of their own time and resources to make their dream a reality.  They’ve put their money where their mouth is.  Talked the talk, walked the walk.  Insert other appropriate cliches here.  Aaron Swartz was no stranger to this approach himself as he started the nonprofit group DemandProgress.  Actions such as those allegedly committed by Aaron Swartz in the JSTOR incident are not only criminal and unethical, but they are an insult to those I’ve listed and anyone else who’ve put their necks on the line and play by the rules.  Shame on anyone who makes excuses for this wannabe “Robin Hood” and his band of “Merry Men.”

2. ‘Publish and perish’ The author of Academic paywalls mean publish and perish (Sarah Kendzior) states:

“If I wanted to download my articles, I would have to pay $183.”

Really?  You mean you don’t have copies OF YOUR OWN PAPERS?

A couple of points on this:

For arguments sake let’s say somehow you’ve lost all copies of your own work.  A computer virus.  A crashed hard drive.  Whatever.  Many publishers will give authors copies of their own published material as long as it is not being used for commercial purposes (more on this in a future post).  I suspect if Miss Kendizor really needed copies of her own articles she need only ask the publisher. Or, God forbid, go to the library.

Unless…the point is that the author is looking for something they don’t posses.  That would be the final published version of the article.  And therein lies the rub…this acknowledges that there’s a difference between what the author wrote and what they want in return. The publisher has performed some sort of service, but the author or reader are not willing to pay for that.

Next, it seems that Kendizor has submitted to a journal that she doesn’t have access to.  Why? If you feel this strongly why not submit to an OA journal? Who is forcing you to send your manuscript somewhere you don’t want to?  I’ll give you the answer in just a bit.  Here’s a clue: it’s not the publisher. Researchers have more choices today.  Use those choices, create change via your actions, not with blog posts which offer little in the way of constructive, real-world application.

Another area Miss Kendzior (and many of those who’ve commented on her blog) seem really upset about is the fact that the material they’d like access to is not (easily) freely available, not only to them, but to those who are in developing or economically challenged countries.  I think this is what she means by “boundaries of which are determined by institutional affiliation and personal wealth.”

Conveniently forgotten from this argument is the fact that many (most?) of the “nefarious” traditional publishers and organizations such as JSTOR already assist in this regard by participating in developing nations programs such as that offered by Highwire (http://highwire.stanford.edu/lists/devecon.dtl).  There are no hoops to jump through to get to the content offered by the publishers.  If you’re visiting the journal from one of these countries you have free access.  No need to create an account, log in, or sign anything in blood.  Read, download, and cite whatever you’d like.  I’m confident that other publishing platforms offer similar programs, but am not positive as I do not use their services.  I’ve reached out to some to confirm this is the case.  Perhaps some connected to these other providers may care to comment.

Your typical traditional, scholarly publisher?

So, this leaves us with what the blog posts describes as the “Tyranny of academic publishers.” BWAHAHAHA! (Maniacal laugh my own)

Kendzior outlines how Academe has functioned for some time now: “New professors are awarded tenure based on their publication output, but not on the impact of their research on the world…”

And somehow publishers are to blame for this because..?

Was it publishers who decided that tenure, promotions, grants and so on would be awarded based on publication output?  Were publishers those who determined the best way to to judge the quality of a journal was by using Impact Factor?  While journal subscription prices in some fields began to skyrocket, did publisher sales reps storm the libraries and force librarians to subscribe?  Did publishers bring to life this system and then look to the sky with wild eyes and proclaim “IT’S ALIVE!”

The answer to all of these questions is “NO.”  Those scholars and academics who have lit their torches and joined the angry mob seeking to drive out the monster in their midst would do well to stop and look in the mirror first.  To quote cartoonist  Walt Kelly “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Usually critics of traditional publishers focus on exorbitant pricing models that result in outrageous profit, but Kendzior states that “the reason for the high price has nothing to do with making money.”  Depicting organizations like JSTOR or others and scholarly publishers in general as the “Evil Empire” only out to “maintain the barrier between academia and the outside world” (Kendzior’s words) via a pricing conspiracy is certainly a…unique take on things.

I’m sick and tired of all academic publishers being painted with the same brush.  I’ve had it with the hyperbole and rhetoric from both sides of the argument.

This is not to say that I agree with the current system.  I have many problems with it myself.  On the other hand I don’t think it’s as simplistic as many believe it to be.  Scholarly publishing is complicated.  There are many players involved. Even those who are trying to drive change will need to find profit somewhere.  But let’s place blame for certain matters where it belongs.  Academics have given this power to publishers and if so desired they have the power to take it away.  Many organizations, tenure committees, and panels are beginning to change their evaluation process.  Librarians are starting to say “no” to outrageous subscription prices.  These are steps in the right direction.

But be careful what you wish for.

You may find that in the end those who are best equipped to deliver the research produced by the academic community most efficiently are those you’re vilifying.  But that is a subject for a future post.

DISCLAIMER: All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Academy of Management.

Chumbawamba says Enough is Enough

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4 Comments

  1. It’s not unthinkable to view the JSTOR gang’s corralling of publicly funded academic research — at the very moment the Net was making open access and inexpensive distribtutino available to all — as “a criminal act. Period.” before Mr. Swarz acted. Knowledge, like goodness, is not a commodity, unless you’re Mitt Romney.

    • adametkin says:

      It may not be “unthinkable” but it’s a pretty ridiculous analogy IMO. If you truly believe JSTOR or whoever has acted in a criminal manner you’re free to take legal action. Good luck with that.

      Regardless, your argument seems to amount to “But mom! They started it!”

  2. Tim says:

    JSTOR and Elsevier are pathetic. This is publicly funded research and it belongs in the public where it can do the most good. Nothing works without heathy competition and availability. Monopolozing scientific content should be quite illegal, given the inexpensiveness of distribution. I think grass roots legistlation could make this come to pass, if the public understood what is at stake here. No one has the right to keep the hard work of researchers long since finished with their careers in shackles. May Jason Schwartz rest in peace. He did nothing more illegal the the Boston teapartiers did. Sometimes the laws are wrong. His cause was much greater than I think many understand. Our future is science and knowledge, and if we monetize this and sell it to the highest bidder and whatever the “market will bear”, we will end up with a corrupt and elitist scientific establihemnt in bed with drug companies and military…for the public we will end up with an AT&T style phone network luddite system where nothing gets accomplished.

    • adametkin says:

      I agree with one part of your response. Let’s let Aaron Swartz (not Jason Schwartz, as you call him) rest in peace.

      As for the rest of your response, Larry Lessig, someone who knew Aaron and the facts of surrounding his case much better then you or I, spoke about the ethical implications of Mr. Swartz’s alleged actions far more eloquently than I.

      Despite the fact that I was critical of Aaron in this case does not mean I am not saddened by his loss. I did many things I regret in my 20s and never with bad intentions. I don’t know if a 40 year old Aaron would have looked back and regretted what he did in this case. It’s tragic that we’ll never know.

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DISCLAIMER: All opinions are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Academy of Management.
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