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On Aaron Swartz & academic publishing

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Here’s something I’m cross-posting from my own blog. It’s related to our conversations in class this past week.

A few days after Aaron Swartz’s suicide — in part triggered by the prospect of a 35-year prison sentence for making a big stash of scholarly journal articles available to the public for free (!) — it is appropriate to think about what is wrong with the state of academic publishing today.

Here’s a for instance: I got an email today about a new issue of the journal Third Text: Critical Perspectives on Contemporary Art and Culture. It’s a special issue on “Contemporary Art and the Politics of Ecology.” It looks great: 16 articles, totaling 170 pages, of theoretical writing, analysis, and conversations between artists, scholars, and activists from around the world. I’d love to read it and to recommend it to my students, who are studying the intersections between art, ecology, politics, and activism.

Given the length of time it takes scholarly journals to be produced, most of the writing would have been done a year or two ago, and possibly more than that. But some of the pieces seem to have been (admirably) rushed to print for this issue. For instance, an article entitled “Art, Ecology and Institutions: A Conversation with Artists and Curators,” which deals in part with exhibitions organized at the Copenhagen and Durban climate summits (respectively, 2009 and 2011) is a panel discussion “conducted by email in July 2012.” Not bad for an academic publication — in fact, nothing short of amazing.

The problem? Third Text is published by Taylor & Francis, a publisher that charges $118 to purchase this issue of the journal. Any single article (in a journal with 16 of them) costs $37.

Fortunately, I work for a university and my university subscribes to one of the large databases that provide journal articles to faculty and students. That database, Ebsco’s Academic Search Premier, provides us access to all issues of Third Text, but only 18 months after they were first published. In today’s hypermediated (and hypercompetitive) academic environment, 18 months is a very long time.

Will art, ecology, politics, or the state of the planet change in 18 months? Not that much. But need our thinking about them be slowed down like this? Whose benefit does that serve? And do those of us not employed by academic institutions deserve to be shut out of conversations among academics?

It’s, of course, up to us academics whether or not to publish in journals like Third Text or, alternatively, in open access journals, whose number is growing. Those (like me) with relatively secure, tenured positions can throw at least some of our support — and our free labor — behind open-access initiatives as opposed to the firewalled academic money machine. Others, whose careers are measured by numbers of publications in respected, high-impact journals, may not have that option.

Aaron Swartz would have gotten an electronic copy of this issue of Third Text and made it available to those of us who would like to read it, debate it, and use it in our thinking, our art-making, and our activism. Instead, he is no longer with us.

Some of my students asked me yesterday who profits from the egregious pricing structure of academic journals. The only answer I could give them was: publishers like Taylor & Francis, Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, et al.

As noted by The Economist, Elsevier made $1.1 billion in profit in 2010 for a profit margin of 36%; Taylor & Francis’s profit margin was 25%. In 2011, Elsevier and its senior executives made 31 contributions to members of the U.S. House of Representatives, of which 12 went to NY Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney, who sponsored something called the Research Works Act (RWA), a bill that would it illegal for the government to make taxpayer-funded research openly accessible to the public.

(It’s one of the ironies of the Swartz case that he had allegedly “stolen” the JSTOR files from MIT while he was employed at Harvard. With their Faculty Open Access Policy and their OpenCourseware, MIT has been in the lead among universities attempting to make scholarship and class materials available to the public. I learned about Elsevier’s lobbying efforts from this page on the MIT library web site.)

As for why there was such a massive overreach of “justice” against Swartz’s stealing and sharing files, I would blame that on ignorance, personal ambition (on one person’s part), a bullying cop mentality among federal prosecutors, and possibly corruption. I don’t know the details of the case well enough to judge, but I hope we’ll be hearing more about it.

 

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