I don’t know much about Aaron Schwartz or hacking or any of that. At the Chalk Face is a mild Reddit user, that’s all.
But I follow the blog Boing Boing, a sort of digital culture and technology digest. Great stuff. They’ve got a few successive posts up about Aaron Schwartz, who took his own life the other day. Readers and writers of Boing Boing are indeed grieving the loss, and it’s pretty damn tragic for a successful 26-year old kid to hang himself.
It appears as if he may have been responding to the stress caused by a years long government witch hunt, or malicious prosecution. From what I gather, and this is based on limited knowledge of this kind of thing, but while at MIT, he used some fairly mild workarounds to download numerous academic articles from JSTOR. Anyone in higher education, a faculty member or graduate student, should understand how much of a pain in the neck it is to get access to this stuff. To get one article, I probably have to open seven different windows and click on numerous links just to access the PDF. Then, I have to do that all over again for each article.
You know, I envy anyone who has the technological capabilities to directly download all articles that match certain search criteria in one fell swoop. That’s why universities pay millions of dollars for these subscriptions: so students and faculty can download these articles.
Here’s where my interest was piqued, and I find it particularly hilarious. Lawrence Lessig has a heartfelt post dedicated to Schwartz, attacking the prosecutorial tactics used by the government to make an example of him. Fifty years in prison for this, really? But here’s the really “hilarious” and insulting concept about this whole case:
The “property” Aaron had “stolen,” we were told, was worth “millions of dollars” — with the hint, and then the suggestion, that his aim must have been to profit from his crime. But anyone who says that there is money to be made in a stash of ACADEMIC ARTICLES is either an idiot or a liar. It was clear what this was not, yet our government continued to push as if it had caught the 9/11 terrorists red-handed.
Who gets the money, this millions of dollars, from academic publishing? The publishers, the “content” providers, the database holders, that’s who. The author gets nothing. I spend a year on a piece of writing, for example, and submit it to a journal for review. The journal’s entire staff, more or less, consists of volunteer reviewers and editors. It can take months for a response.
Let’s say it’s accepted. I must spend a few more months revising, some back and forth, and a few more months waiting for publication. It gets published. Sometimes I get a hard copy, most of the time, not. I have a PDF. One rarely, if ever, hears anything about the article. Perhaps someone reads it. But you rarely receive any correspondence, praise, criticism, feedback, anything, just crickets. Ultimately, it ends up as a quick citation in another person’s article, if you’re lucky, and the cycle continues.
So, how is this all able to work with absolutely no money changing hands? Well, in higher education, we are told that our jobs depend on publication. And not necessarily based on any sort of “quality” measure. We hear about this whole fiction of “top-tier” journals or whatever. I mean, it differs by field, so there’s no way to keep track anyway. Nevertheless, we publish largely for the sake of publication. Perhaps 1 in 10 publications, and that’s being generous, actually makes a difference. The rest are half-baked ideas from professional conferences that are written well enough to end up somewhere.
This whole thing works on the conferral of “status.” That’s it. We write, review, edit, all for free. Just to keep our jobs. I mean, we never really receive an objective measure of how many articles to write, or to review, or edit. How many does one really influential article count against a bunch of other less influential pieces? How about a book, a book chapter? What does those equal?
No one can tell you, or they refuse to tell you. Why? Well, it’s sort of similar to how the “variable interval” schedule is the most powerful reinforcement schedule in all of behavioral science. Random intervals, of variable length, not based on performance of the task. Keep us guessing. We’ll keep writing and editing, for free, and the publishers wil keep raking in the profits based on an unlimited supply of volunteer workers, trading on some mysterious currency that cannot be defined.
So, for Aaron Schwartz, I feel terrible that his life was ruined based on such a system that exploits authors, and the publishers have the temerity to claim that he “stole” valuable intellectual property. JSTOR didn’t write a thing.
Pity. And we’ll keep publishing anyway. We have to.