Library vendors, politics, Aaron Swartz, #pdftribute

On January 10, 2013 Rick Anderson published a post at The Scholarly Kitchen published on six mistakes library staff are making when dealing with our vendors. Most of them were fairly standard stuff like don't be rude, don't waste people's time. That sort of thing. (Yes, sometimes I think that every time I link to a Scholarly Kitchen article, an open access journal loses its wings.)

The sixth, however, was a bit different.

Putting political library concerns above patron needs. I’ve saved for last the “mistake” that I know is likely to be the most controversial, but I think it must be said. Because the issue is so complicated, this will be a topic for a full post at a later date, but for now I’ll just say that it has long seemed to me (and comments from my vendor-side informants seem to confirm it) that too often, we in libraries put politics ahead of mission and service. By “politics,” I mean our personal views about how the world ought to be, and more specifically our views about how the scholarly communication economy ought to be structured. Again, I realize that this is a very complicated, even fraught, issue, and I also realize that one’s beliefs about how scholarly communication ought to be shared will inevitably have some effect on the purchasing decisions one makes on behalf of the library and its constituents. The question isn’t whether politics ought to enter into such decisions. The question is one of balance. More specifically, the question is: To what degree is it appropriate to sacrifice the short-term good of our patrons in the pursuit of long-term economic reform in scholarly publishing (or vice versa)? I will write more about this soon, but for now I’ll simply say that it seems clear to me that, in too many cases, we are making that sacrifice in an ill-advised way.

Basically, don't challenge vendors when it comes to creating a fairer, more open scholarly communications ecosystem if that goal conflicts with short term patron needs. (Some other reactions to the Scholarly Kitchen post: Jacob Berg, Wayne Bivens-Tatum.)

Upon reading this, I'll admit to being curious as to exactly what examples of this behaviour Anderson had in mind. After all, "we are making that sacrifice in an ill-advised way."

His response (And some of Anderson's other relevant writings here, here and here.):

One example would be when a library chooses to maintain conventional interlibrary loan practices at a per-transaction cost of $20 rather than take advantage of a $5 short-term loan option, based on the belief that giving up ILL would endanger traditional first-sale rights in the ebook realm. Another might be canceling a high-demand Big Deal package—not because it’s no longer affordable, but because the library wants to help undermine the Big Deal model in the marketplace or believes that the publisher in question is making unreasonable profits. (And yes, I know of specific examples of both of those decisions being made in research libraries.)

I’m not saying either one of those decisions is wrong. But each one does constitute the sacrifice of a definite, short-term, and local benefit in favor of a theoretical, long-term, and global benefit, and the appropriate balance between those two sets of considerations is what I think could usefully be discussed.

Fair enough. Defending first sale rights in a era of licensed ebooks and patron driven acquisitions is very likely tilting at windmills. That battle may be more important in public libraries than academic libraries, so I'll grant that the short term/long term issue is difficult to decide here. The second example is more problematic. I'm assuming he's referring to something like the decision by SUNY Potsdam to cancel their American Chemical Society subscription in the face of unsustainable price increases. Those kinds of price increases aren't in our patron's best interests in anything beyond a ridiculously short time frame and here I think the best course is to work with those patron communities to push for reform together. Our political responsibility as librarians, as academics, as faculty at our institutions, as members of society, is to find ways to maintain the long term viability of the academic enterprise.

Balance, of course, is important here. We can't cut off our noses to spit our faces. But it's also possible to go too far with a false notion of what balance might be. In a sense we need a higher level of balance, a meta-balance if you will, that enables us to both do our best to take care of the short term needs of our communities but at the same time empowers us to make hard decisions with our communities that serves a wide range of long term needs.

The primary long term need I'm talking about, one that embraces all of society, nationally and internationally, is a fairer and more open scholarly communications ecosystem. Our vendors are just that -- our vendors. They aren't our friends, they aren't our colleagues, they aren't our patrons, serving them isn't our mission. We aren't on the same side. Some vendors share many of the same values that we do, some not so much. They provide us with products and services, we pay their bills. And that's OK. A fair profit is OK too, for the commercial publishers. Not making mistakes in our dealings with them is important. Helping them build better products and services is fine too. Solid, respectful and productive professional relationships are vital. Even a certain amount of friendliness and collegiality.

As for "political," in my books every decision in this context is political. Deciding against activism is just as political as deciding for it.

Which brings us to Aaron Swartz.

By this point in time, pretty well anyone reading this probably knows the story. A couple of years ago, Swartz improperly downloaded a very large chunk of the JSTOR database from the MIT network, violating the JSTOR terms of service. While JSTOR declined to pursue the matter once he returned the files, MIT and the US Attorney's office continued to pursue charges, with the trial upcoming. Had he been found guilty, he would have faced very serious jail time. On January 11, 2013 he committed suicide. It's obviously difficult to know how much his legal problems were a factor, but it seems that they did to some extent.

Swartz worked tirelessly during his short life to promote innovation, openness and access to all sorts of information. What he did in this particular case was clearly an act of guerrilla open access.

Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You’ll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable.

“I agree,” many say, “but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights, they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it’s perfectly legal — there’s nothing we can do to stop them.” But there is something we can, something that’s already being done: we can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. 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.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we’ll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we’ll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?

Aaron Swartz
July 2008, Eremo, Italy

While personally I'm pretty solidly with Peter Suber on this issue and not a big fan guerilla OA, Swartz's ultimate goal is something I completely agree with. That goal was to make scholarly research available to everyone.

But why is it important? Why am I writing this post?

Because at the end of the day, love him or hate him, agree or disagree with his methods, what Aaron Swartz did was a political act. Aaron Swartz's was on the side of the angels.

And we -- academic libraries and librarians -- should be too. Our political acts will be different, they may be more measured, more balanced, more gradual, more nuanced, more collaborative, more respectful of the law, but political they will be. And focused on the same objective.

Speaking of objectives, what should we all do next? Libraries and librarians should continue our open access activism, pressuring publishers and governments towards business models and policies that promote openness. Taking advantage of the #pdftribute moment, we should support our faculty and researchers in choosing open options for disseminating their research. Jonathan Eisen's has some great suggestions in Ten simple ways to share PDFs of your papers #PDFtribute and 10 things you can do to REALLY support #OpenAccess #PDFTribute.

What side of history do we want to be on?

More like this

Hey, John. While I certainly agree fat cats shouldn't control everything, I worry about the self-righteousness of the Open Access Movement, and the self-romanticization of people like martyr-of-the-day Scwarz, who saw himself as some kind of cyber Pretty Boy Floyd.

"It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy."

Blinded by greed? Or a desire to be paid for one's work?

Seems to me that many of those who so loudly demand everything be free without restriction are as greedy as any corporation. Or at least cheap as shit. What sort of "friend," for instance, demands a free copy of their friend's book? How many friends are researchers, scientists and writers expected to "share" your work with, before they're not considered "blinded by greed"?

While there may be a large difference between "scholarly works" or "scientific research" and the shabby world of crime fiction where I live, copyright laws -- as reprehensible as they may be to freeloaders -- may be the last and only way to ensure that writers are fairly compensated for their work.

I'm no big fan of excessive copyright laws, but I'm equally dubious of so much of the self-righteousness that comes along with the Open Access movement. Should some old study on cellular research be free? Probably, but too many of the OAM's purported disciples also demand to read the latest Stephen King or some beginning writer's first book for free. They see no difference: "It's all the same, man."

To them, maybe.

But there's something a little self-serving about that notion. Let's see some of these OAM freeloaders get up off their fat, self-serving "moral imperatives" and prove their sincerity.

If they're so big on sharing, what are they willing to share?

By Kevin Burton Smith (not verified) on 18 Jan 2013 #permalink

Hi Kevin,

Thanks. I really appreciate your comment. And I mostly agree with you. I tried very hard in my post not to romanticize Swartz too much -- what he did was wrong and that merited some response -- but the degree to which he was hounded was disproportionate to the crime. Even JSTOR, the injured party, I think acknowledged that by dropping their involvement in the suit.

My focus at least in the OAM is the pure academic research, the stuff funded by public money. Trade publishing, to me, isn't part of the mandate of that and people that just want to "liberate" that stuff without compensating the creators are just wrongheaded. We can talk about length of copyright terms and all that, but basically I'm completely in support of creators getting paid. In fact I made a strong case about just that in a post from a while back about an OA supporter getting paid to write a non-academic book about OA: Is it ok to get paid to promote Open Access?

Kevin, not all creative works are created with the same goals. Your position confuses those creative works conceived for profit, and those who prime purpose is influence and the enhancement of reputation. The latter, which includes most scholarly works, will obviously be more likely to achieve their purpose when they are freely available online to anyone that cares to read them. Note: in almost all scholarly publication venues, authors do NOT get paid, nor do the peer reviewers, and, mostly, not even the editors. They do it for glory and the hope of academic tenure. Royalty cheques don't come into it.

By Douglas Carnall (not verified) on 18 Jan 2013 #permalink

Hey, guys, I'm well aware of the distinction, but I'm not sure all those trying to make this poor sad kid into a Robin Hood figure are. They just want free stuff. I imagine a glowing tribute to him in Rolling Stone is next...

By Kevin Burton Smith (not verified) on 19 Jan 2013 #permalink

I guess that in the final analysis, I'd preference the access of working researchers affiliated with significant institutions over enigmatic cybernauts. There's an inherently romantic pipedream aspect of Swartz's position. 99.9% of research is inherently incomprehensible to the vast majority of people, and even if they had access to it, they couldn't do anything worthwhile with it. So why endanger the publishing model to benefit them?

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By 手機保護殼 (not verified) on 27 May 2013 #permalink