The cold-hearted scam of academic publishing RIP Aaron Schwartz #highered

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.


  1. How about an opt out movement for academic publishing? Modeling active derision for pointless activities through refusal could have a profound effect on children and their parents as they navigate the endless stream of equally pointless bullshit by which American kids are measured. RIP Aaron Schwartz


    1. I think publishing in alternative sources would be a fitting start. But for how much faculty careers depend on this act, I’m not sure how many would actually participate in an active refusal. I think increasing publication in open access journals, or posting free publications online, is the best way to begin this process.


      1. I understand the concern junior scholars have about publishing in open-access journals. They don’t get respect. For now, it is a strategy for senior scholars and especially for retired scholars, like me. The UK movement will help all of us (see my posts) – it will make open access legit for everybody. Senior and retired scholars MUST HELP BY CHANGING PUBLISHING REQUIREMENTS FOR JUNIOR SCHOLARS. We also legitimize open access simply by publishing in these journals. I will be happy to list a few open access journals in second language acquisition (I submitted three papers to open-access journals last month, one in India, one in Iran, one in Singapore.)


  2. YES: We do the work, and the .01% makes the money. And few people can afford access to these journals. This is why we started a free on-line journal about six years ago in second language acquisition and teaching (, and why I now submit my papers to free open-access journals and post my papers on my website (


  3. Academic spring: how an angry maths blog sparked a scientific revolution
    Alok Jha reports on how a Cambridge mathematician’s protest has led to demands for open access to scientific knowledge

    The Guardian, Monday 9 April 2012

    ‘I was taken aback by how quickly this thing blew up,’ says Tim Gowers, a prize-winning Cambridge University mathematician.
    It began with a frustrated blogpost by a distinguished mathematician. Tim Gowers and his colleagues had been grumbling among themselves for several years about the rising costs of academic journals.
    They, like many other academics, were upset that the work produced by their peers, and funded largely by taxpayers, sat behind the paywalls of private publishing houses that charged UK universities hundreds of millions of pounds a year for the privilege of access.
    There had been talk last year that a major scientific body might come out in public to highlight the problem and rally scientists to speak out against the publishing companies, but nothing was happening fast.
    So, in January this year, Gowers wrote an article on his blog declaring that he would henceforth decline to submit to or review papers for any academic journal published by Elsevier, the largest publisher of scientific journals in the world.
    He was not expecting what happened next. Thousands of people read the post and hundreds left supportive comments. Within a day, one of his readers had set up a website, The Cost of Knowledge, which allowed academics to register their protest against Elsevier.
    The site now has almost 9,000 signatories, all of whom have committed themselves to refuse to either peer review, submit to or undertake editorial work for Elsevier journals. “I wasn’t expecting it to make such a splash,” says Gowers. “At first I was taken aback by how quickly this thing blew up.”
    Gowers, a mathematician at Cambridge University and winner of the prestigious Fields Medal, had hit a nerve with academics who were increasingly fed up with the stranglehold that a few publishing companies have gained over the publication and distribution of the world’s scientific research.
    The current publishing model for science is broken, argue an ever-increasing number of supporters of open access publishing, a model whereby all scientific research funded by taxpayers would be made available on the web for free.
    For the rest:


  4. UK government earmarks £10m for open access publishing, Friday 7 September 2012 11.16 EDT

    Science minister David Willetts said the funding for open access had been secured ‘without a reduction in commitments elsewhere’. Photograph: Anna Gordon/Guardian
    The government has announced £10m in funding for UK academics to publish their research in journals that allow free public access to the material online without a subscription.
    The funding, which is a response to the recommendations of a report led by Professor Dame Janet Finch, is not new money but will be taken from the science budget. It will be apportioned by Research Councils UK, the body that disseminates government research funds.
    Calls for “open access publishing” have been steadily growing in academic circles, with Dutch commercial publishers Elsevier being boycotted by thousands of academics in protest at perceived profiteering through journal access costs.
    The government is adopting a funding model proposed by Finch called “gold” open access, where – instead of university libraries subscribing to journals – researchers pay commercial publishers or learned societies to publish their research, but access to their results is immediate and unrestricted.

    For more:


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