[open access] Information Wants to be Piratically Free
I think it is important to share a passionate article written by Karen Coyle in response to the big-news indictment of open-access folk hero, 24-year-old Aaron Swartz (Harvard researcher and co-creator of RSS) for downloading 4.8 million articles from academic database JSTOR [read her article “Unequal Access”]. Coyle writes that right now it is important to reflect on the inequality of information access in the world. In the United States alone the information gap is divided by a multimillion dollar paywall intrinsically linked to the digital and educational divide bureaucratically maintained through “contract negotiations with information providers, … the multi-faceted delivery systems that blend (or attempt to) digital and paper resources into a single stream” (Coyle, 2011), the run-off from the provisions of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act binding-up information to the result of knowledge inequality.
Those who have access to academic databases are “members of a privileged community,” students, staff, or faculty of universities that for many of the former expire soon following graduation.
Like the majority of people in this country. There is no access to JSTOR. No openURL server gives me multiple access options. The local public library does have some electronic materials, but these are much less extensive (and less expensive) than the ones in academic libraries. I may have to wait weeks to get a book that isn’t in my local library’s collection, if I can get it at all. I am often in the embarrassing position of not being able to access articles that I would like to read or quote from, including ones that I myself have authored. (Coyle, 2011)
In 2008 Aaron Swartz pumped-out his Open-Access Manifesto arguing that “It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture" (Swartz, 2008), part of which included the piracy and distribution of academic journals.
I am inclined to agree. As I have validated my position working in reference by using the university’s databases to which I’ve access as a graduate student, inevitably this paywall will divorce me from my resources that ironically allow me to act as an information resource both to the public and undergraduates from a local campus forty-five minutes from its single, central library. Just as Coyle noted, I have access—as does everyone—to less expensive public library databases, but more often than not these article-dumps aggregate trivia not to par for freshmen research. I am thankful that my value to the workplace isn’t all holed-up in reference or I would be afraid that the DMCA would force me into obsolescence.
Swartz could spend up to 35 years in prison for the liberation of information that, let’s be honest, really isn’t earning the actual researchers all that much money behind the paywall. Note that Cory Doctorow has authoritatively written that obscurity, not piracy, is an author’s worst enemy. For him, licensing his works under Creative Commons permits the free distribution of all writing and has resulted in tremendous reputation-share, popularity, and money - lots. Arguably similar open distribution of scholarly journals would not only be a tremendous boon to culture, but it would fatten the wallets in the pockets of the authors themselves.
I share Karen’s final thought:
It occurs to me as I write this that the “Digital Public Library of America” could create an information revolution in this country by upgrading the access of the general public to that of an academic or student in a large college or university, without ever digitizing a single page. What makes Stanford “Stanford” or Harvard “Harvard” is not just its famed faculty but the full range of information that is shared by that community. Everything they do, every bit of research, every new idea, is facilitated by the library and its services. (Coyle, 2011)