Peering Behind the Paywall

14Jan13
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Looking for articles that you really need does often feel like storming Helm’s Deep.

One of the beautiful benefits of belonging to a university, it access to its network. Why? The veritable feast of articles and books that await. However, and far more frequently than I would like, I window will open that reminds me that I do not have access to this content. I know that having a university-wide license for sites such as Cambridge Publishing, or JSTOR, or Science Direct is very expensive, but we live in an age where there is high demand for knowledge and still a great many hurdles to overcome in order to get at it. When my supervisor asks me why I have not read or seen an article, responding that it is behind a paywall is not kosher.

Now I crowd source many of my article need. Well, that’s a bit of an overstatement, but a large number of my friends are still in school or have access to university network with larger journal pools. And trust me, I have milked these connections within an inch of their lives. Granted I can do it the old fashion way, and I often do, and find the hard copy; however, even then, I frequently write emails that begin with, “Please please don’t hate me, but I really need you to see if you have X. I’ll owe you big.” Sometimes I can return the favor, but not often enough to balance out my growing deficit.

This is hardly a new complaint or issue, but it came to the forefront today after reading an article in the defense of Aaron Swartz. I honestly did not now about this case until today (yes, shame on me), but after reading the through provoking piece by one of Aaron’s expert witnesses Alex Stamos. A very basic summary: Aaron was a student at Harvard, and used MIT’s network to access their subscription to JSTOR, downloading thousands of articles. JSTOR was alerted to his activity, and blocked his IP address. Basically  this went back and forth for a while, Aaron using different IPs and JSTOR blocking them. Finally, Aaron used a closet at MIT to continue accessing the repository. Aaron was not trying to be malicious, but intended to create an opportunity for open access to this content. Considering MIT’s guest policy, which allows non-registered persons to access their network, he was not violating MIT. I was unaware that JSTOR had download limits, but then again I have never tried to amass that many articles in one sitting. Aaron settled with JSTOR and MIT, paying a nominal fee. The case, US v. Swartz, came about because the state of Massachusetts’ Attorney General filed against Aaron, even after he had settled. Now it’s a criminal proceeding. Sadly, Aaron died unexpectedly last week. After reading the defense by Stamos, I don’t see Aaron as this crazed hacker attempting to ruin JSTOR. It may be overly romantic to say he was like an academic Robin Hood, but I think he did it with the right motivations just in the wrong way. I understand this idea of open access for articles, and published materials is fraught with issues. Cost being one of the major ones. It’s a little utopian to ask for open access for all, but a smaller wall would be an acceptable start. Embragled in the cost issue is also the legal ones regarding copyright. Since there is no global copywriting system, this can lead to loopholes and difficulties  I recently downloaded a copy of The Great Gadsby, which is out of copyright in Australia (which is where the file originated) but not in the US. Considering how information is being disseminated and consumed, there seems to be a need for new laws.

Interestingly, over the past ten months JSTOR initiated a trial period for individual access, and has officially announced that registered individuals will be able to access their database. Though there are restrictions, naturally  regarding how many you can download, etc, it is an important first step towards open access. I may be using the term ‘open access’ a bit frivolously  but this is in the hopes that this is the beginning of a brighter researching future.

For me, the essence of this case is the right to knowledge. Libraries were founded so that the general (literate, so this has connotations in itself, but let’s keep the rose colored glasses for a moment) public would have a place to and read. Libraries have always been a sacred place for me, and my heart breaks every time I read about them being shut down or destroyed  I have this irrevocable hope that one day time travel will be invented so that I can visit the Library of Alexandria. Aaron’s story is tragic, but does make wonder about the future of internet research which is becoming a cornerstone of any research project today.

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