Aaron Swartz, JSTOR and academic paywalls…

Back in 2011 when Aaron Swartz was accused of downloading four million documents from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and JSTOR, an archive of scientific journals and academic papers, i didn’t know anything else about him. The fact that he was a co-founder of REDDIT and some sort of digital prodigy or cyber whiz kid only came to my attention after his tragic suicide last week. As Deepa Kurup noted in a Hindu article dated January 15, 2013:

On Saturday, the open Internet lost one of its most passionate and talented champions, one who spoke up often against the inequalities of information flow and access on its World Wide Web. Aaron Swartz, all of 26, committed suicide as a result of depression, which many believe was triggered by the federal charges he was facing for hacking into the JSTOR (short for Journal Storage) academic database in 2011. Back then, Swartz had downloaded millions of academic research papers from the subscription database and planned to release them for free. In 2008, he had pulled off a similar hack with public court documents.

Swartz was first noticed when he co-authored the RSS standard (for feeds) at 14, soon after which he became a tireless crusader for free access on the web. He was the chief architect of OpenLibrary.org, a free public catalogue of books under the Internet Archive project, an early member of the Creative Commons team, and more recently, led a successful campaign against two key legislations — SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act) – that sought to clamp down on intellectual property rights violations online.

…So in a fitting tribute on Monday, academics across the world paid tribute to this legendary hacker and advocate of a free and equal Internet by putting up PDFs of their copyrighted works online. On the micro-blogging site Twitter, the hashtag #PDFTribute trended all day, triggering a progressive and open debate on copyright, academic work and access.

In retrospect one is left feeling bereft at the loss of someone so young, gifted and bold; there are also residual questions about his action and his target, JSTOR, which is by no means the Darth Vader of academic archives. That honour better belongs to academic repositories such as EBSCo or journal publishers like Elsevier whose products each cost thousands of dollars in annual subscriptions. In fact Elsevier has come under sustained criticism from the  academic community and others.

JSTOR on the other hand is an entity I’m very familiar with. As managing editor of a small journal published in the global South (Social and Economic Studies, University of the West Indies) archives such as ProQuest, Gale and more recently JSTOR, have proved invaluable resources for making material published in our journals more easily available online. JSTOR in particular undertook the digitization of our entire printed output dating back to 1953, a very valuable archive of social science articles on the Caribbean by some of the most important researchers located here over the past six decades. This has made quite a difference to academic research on and about the region judging from the number of downloads of our articles in the one year since SES has appeared in JSTOR. For every download we get a small fraction of the price charged by JSTOR for its bundled journals, but its a sum that didn’t exist previously and that adds up to a not insignificant amount each year.

JSTOR also allows us to access their usage statistics, showing how many times a particular article was downloaded, what the most accessed article and issues are, month by month. Again for small regional journals such as ours, this kind of information is invaluable and assists in measuring the ‘Impact Factor’ of the research we publish. The huge citation databases of the North rarely take note of journals such as SES which have relatively small subscriber bases and are located in the South.

And that brings me to another thing–the frequently levelled complaint that academic content is inaccessible behind steep paywalls–on the contrary our subscription fees are very reasonable. We charge US$60 for an individual and US$90 for institutional subscriptions of four issues of SES per year. Yet we don’t have a huge subscription base and barely make enough to earn our keep from year to year. Economies of scale are a major problem for us. I wonder how many journals such as ours are included  and made available through JSTOR? Can this be balanced against the price of accessing material through them?

The Hindu article goes on to level another charge: “All the more relevant in the context of a developing country like India, many complained that outside university networks, it was impossible to access academic works.”
Again I can’t overlook a recent JSTOR initiative designed to address this very problem. As publishers we were all informed about the new Register & Read (R&R) program which was launched in early 2012 and now makes 1200 journals available for online reading. Its rationale was explained in an email:

We have an opportunity today that we believe is worth exploring together. Content on JSTOR is increasingly found by people that do not have access to it through a JSTOR participating institution. They do searches on Google, follow links to articles, and are then met with a closed door at JSTOR. In 2010 alone, we turned away nearly 150 million attempts to access our publisher partners’ content.

Rather than turning these people away, we think it makes more sense to welcome them, understand them better, and see if we can’t better meet their needs through a variety of access models developed with our publishers. While we already have in place the ability for publishers to sell single articles to individuals through our Publisher Sales Service and offer individual access to specific journal archives through publishers and societies, these efforts are only meeting the needs of a small number of these potential users.

As a first step, we are planning to launch a new ‘front door’ for JSTOR later this summer with the aim of improving the user experience,  gathering information about users, and testing some ideas about increasing access and publisher revenue. Users coming to the site will have a new option to “Register and Read.” Registering with JSTOR will give them read-only access to 3 articles that can be refreshed every two weeks. The articles can be purchased and downloaded if the publisher has enabled this capability through our Publisher Sales Service. Registered users will also receive unlimited access, including download capabilities, for most journal content published before 1923 in the United States and 1890 elsewhere.

Of course JSTOR wasn’t initiating such a programme for humanitarian reasons. In return for users registering and answering some questions:

…we will be able to: see how many users elect to register; understand who the registrants are; track which articles interest them; and know how frequently they sign on. We will also learn how having the option to read online impacts article purchase, and, working with our publisher partners, try out new promotions of additional articles, journal subscriptions, and society memberships based on their identities and behaviors.

Over time, we will be able to use this data to determine the potential demand for and to test a range of access options, including some that exist today (e.g., single article sales, journal subscriptions, etc.) as well as new models like online article rentals, day passes or even annual individual subscriptions to JSTOR. Our aim will be to meet the needs of more people around the world, in collaboration with and in ways that bring new revenue and readership to our publisher partners.

So this post is just to add some detail to what otherwise  seems like a very black and white scenario and to present for what it’s worth ( a few paisa surely?) the point of view of a small journal editor based in the global South. If Swartz was still around there”s one thing I’d want to ask–how and why did he decide on JSTOR as a target rather than any of the other worse offenders?

Beyond that I also have a doubt about whether  everything published in academic journals has a transparent use value for the public at large. I hear Swartz and others who maintain that information can and must be free. By and large I subscribe to such views myself. But to simply equate academic articles with useful information is misleading and perhaps untrue. Such articles have academic value and value within a citation economy on which universities rely for assessing academic value. That is all. Much of the ‘information’ gets dated very soon and like canned goods has expiry dates beyond which it is of  little or no use to anyone. Except academics. These are issues we need to have  more nuanced discussions about.