Aaron Swartz and the Importance of Open Access

The following was written by Journal Committee staffer Nele Noppe

Many readers of this blog will have heard of Aaron Swartz, a hacker and free culture activist whose suicide on January 13 sent shockwaves around the Internet. One of the many things Swartz campaigned for – in fact, the cause that got him in the most trouble in the end – was open access to academic research, a cause near and dear to the OTW in general and its Gold Open Access academic journal Transformative Works and Cultures (TWC) in particular.

I want to take this sad opportunity to say a few words on what open access is and why it’s so important for research on fans. Academics who research fans must do their utmost to make sure their work is available for everyone, particularly fans, the very group they’re studying; and all fans should have the right to access to research on topics that are relevant to fandom.

What is Open Access?

Open access is the idea that academic research should be available for free to anyone who wants to read it. An open access academic journal makes its articles available online, entirely free for anyone to read. TWC is a good example of an open access journal. Open access publishing, although gaining traction, remains a departure from the traditional and still-dominant model of spreading the results of academic research, which is to publish papers in (expensive) print journals and locked online databases. That publishing system is becoming controversial among many academics, in part because it monetizes the content not to authors or scholarly organizations, but to the large publishers that negotiate and then retain control of access. Locking research away in expensive databases denies access to the many nonacademics who genuinely need information from academic research. Even information created through taxpayer-funded research, such as information funded by the US National Institutes of Health, is locked away, even though such articles are meant to be open access and cannot be copyrighted.

Let’s take a hypothetical example of a fan worried about copyright, and the academic paper that could ease her concerns. (This example supposes that said fan doesn’t ask for free advice from the OTW’s friendly legal experts.)

Fan A has just been told that the GIF set she’s posted is illegal. She’s confused and wondering whether she should take her work down. Unbeknownst to her, publicly funded law researcher B has written a solid and well-thought-out journal article about copyright and GIF sets that says exactly what fan A needs to hear. How likely is it that the information from researcher B’s research will make it to the person who needs it, fan A?

  • First of all, and perhaps most importantly, fan A is unlikely to find out that the article even exists in the first place. The closed online databases that contain academic articles don’t tend to show up much in search results from regular search engines. The specialized search engines and search techniques used to find content in academic works can be very handy if you know what you’re looking for and where to look, but they’re not very relevant to how many nonacademics try to find information.
  • If fan A does find out about the article’s existence and guesses from the title and abstract that it may be useful, she probably won’t be able to gain access to the online academic database that houses it. Unless fan A happens to attend a university whose library had enough money to pay tens of thousands of dollars in subscription fees to get access to that database, fan A’s only option is to buy a download copy of the article. The cost for a single academic article of around thirty pages is often in the $20 to $45 range, and there may be no way to get a preview of the article to find out if it actually contains the information needed. Unless fan A is swimming in money and can afford to buy a couple of $20 articles in the hope of stumbling across what she wants, she won’t pay this.

And that’s where fan A’s attempts to get anything useful out of academic research will probably end. Thousands of academic researchers do massive amounts of work on topics that are relevant to fans, but if that research is published in a closed journal, only other university-affiliated researchers, or people who physically go to a library that happens to subscribe to the relevant databases, can ever see it. Fans who may need the information are locked out.

Calls to action in memory of Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was campaigning to change all this. He believed that information should be free. In January 2011, he used MIT’s academic network to gain access to a huge academic database, JSTOR, and then used a script to download copies of eight million academic articles. It was an activist stunt, not an attempt to rob JSTOR of income, and JSTOR declined to press charges after Swartz gave them the copies he made. However, prosecutors still decided to charge him with thirteen separate felony counts related to the way he gained access to JSTOR’s database. These felony counts could have ended up costing Swartz a fine of up to $1 million and decades in jail. His trial was due to begin in only a few months, but 2 years to the day after he was arrested for the JSTOR case, he killed himself. Many commentators claim that the threat of draconian punishment may have contributed to Swartz’s decision to take his own life, and that the charges were mostly baseless regardless. No one was hurt; no money was lost.

The tragedy of Swartz’s death has activists calling for reform of the Copyright Fraud and Abuse Act under which Swartz was charged, and the criminal justice system that threatened him with disproportionate punishment. One of the first and most conspicuous of these calls was made by academics on Twitter, who used the hashtag #pdftribute to post public copies of their papers that were first published in locked journals.

While actions like #pdftribute are admirable, they’re not a sustainable solution to the access problem – and not just because we can’t rely on every individual researcher to do this. Let’s get back to fan A and her copyright worries for a second. What if researcher B becomes concerned about giving the public access to her research, and tweets a copy of her paper? Would that mean fan A can find what she needs?

Nope. The fact that a free PDF of an article is floating around somewhere doesn’t mean that the information inside it becomes magically available to fan A. To point out just one obstacle: how is she even going to locate that file? Even if she managed to find out that researcher B’s article exists, all fan A will find by searching is the paid version, with no indication that there’s a free PDF around that she might find with a little more digging. Further, it’s likely that researcher B doesn’t have the legal right to distribute her paper, even though she wrote it: she signed over copyright to the journal it appeared in.

Long term solutions

To make a long story short, making research accessible isn’t just about removing obscene price tags from academic articles. While the term “open access,” used in its specific, legal sense, refers to journals that publish free copies of papers, making research truly accessible requires so much more than that. Open access is also about making sure that important research results are made available in a place where the people who need the information are likely to find it. (Imagine how much faster fan A could have found the info she needed if someone had mentioned researcher B’s conclusions in, say, a relevant Wikipedia article!) Open access is also about making sure that people without experience decoding academic papers can still read and understand the information. Open access is also about making sure that the information is published in a format that people can reuse, and under a license that allows them to reuse it.

Improving access by fans to the academic research being done about them has been a key concern of the OTW from the very start. Since its founding in 2008, TWC has published no less than 200 articles, interviews, editorials, and book reviews (bibliography). Making sure that all this research is available for free online has taken tremendous effort; to get some idea, read this post by journal editor Karen Hellekson about the difficulties of running an online academic journal in an academic publishing system that doesn’t value online content.

Fanhackers, Coming Soon

But just “free” is not accessible enough, and limiting our efforts to what happens within our own organization is no longer enough. That’s why in a few weeks, we’re launching a new project to expand our efforts toward making research truly useful and relevant beyond the borders and acafannish audience of TWC. We’ll experiment with concrete ways to make research on fans more accessible and usable, encourage researchers to publish their work in an open way (no easy task when the closed print model carries prestige, which in turn can be used toward promotion and tenure), and give any support we can to other projects that share those goals.

In 2008, Aaron Swartz articulated the feelings of many when he wrote in his “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” that keeping academic research behind pay walls is “a private theft of public culture” that should be resisted by all means necessary, especially by the researchers who can actually access all those locked papers. We call on all academics whose research is relevant for fans to make sure that their results can actually reach the people who need information.