Free Kittens: Aaron Swartz, Open Access, and public perceptions



Free Kittens, originally uploaded by Trees and Bees Photog.

Last night I dragged my bandmates up to Davis to twee house show. It featured Rose Melberg’s new band, Imaginary Pants, as well as two of the best bands in Sacramento right now – English Singles and Nacho Business. Thankfully the show ended early and we were able to get home at a decent hour.

On my way back from dropping off the guys, I happened to catch a rebroadcast of KALW’s Your Call, a call-in discussion show. Yesterday the topic was how copyright light is affecting our access in the information age, prompted by the recent prosecution of Aaron Swartz, which precipitated his suicide. (Let me urge you to go read Amy Buckland’s thoughts on the situation.)

Host Rose Aguilar spoke with Parker Higgins from EFF, Jessica Richman who helped lead the #pdftribute for Swartz on Twitter, and Stanford professor John Willinsky who is involved with the Public Knowledge Project. Conspicuously absent from the group? A librarian.

Often Your Call suffers from soapbox-ism, where it’s clear Aguilar is passionate about a cause but also borders on preachy. It’s part and parcel of public radio. The thing that annoyed me in this case though was that she really had no idea how systemic the problem is and the program offered no solutions or rallying cries other than, “Is this really a crime?” (shouldn’t be) and “Information should be free!” Here are some bullet points I jotted down on re-listening to it this morning:

  • Of course as a librarian I’ve heard the “free” argument before. Hell, I make the argument a lot. Publicly funded research should be free. Who’s going to pay for it? Researchers very rarely consider the cost of publication as part of research. Often the “free” is thought of as beer when it’s really kittens. (The whole free beer/free kittens thing is pretty old.) Editorial boards, publishing (print and digital), it all costs money. Not that most academic publishers aren’t running a very lucrative racket, but it’s not as easy as a researcher posting PDFs on their website.
  • Higgins warns that information is becoming privatized. Dude… hate to break it to you but it has already been privatized. The Big Deal in academic publishing has backed us all into a corner. Researchers have been happy with the ease of access when they’re at institutions that can afford it, making it nearly impossible for libraries (yes, they pay for it) to cancel subscriptions, and really, we’re all losing out. This goes back to my first point – publication should really factored into the cost of research. Without access to the results, what’s it really mater?
  • Not all research is funded by public money. There was a caller at the end who made this point (and that publishing also costs money). Governments fund a lot of research, but as the coffers run dry research centers have to find new funding sources, which often is private. It’s great that more and more government mandates are requiring Open Access and Open Data, but we’re not there yet. Also, who’s going to pay for it? Money really is the root of the problem and makes it all a huge mess.
  • Another caller complained that as an UC Berkeley alumni he could not access journals from the library. First of all, he can. There are sticky issues though related to online access of material, which alumni often lament they wish their card granted them access. Sorry, that would make the cost so much more expensive. Contracts are negotiated by the number of FTE students/faculty/staff. If you throw alumni into the mix, the number would be much higher and the costs of licensing would be prohibitively expensive. Licensing of electronic content is a slippery slope (which the general public is starting to slide down), but libraries have been there for a very long time.
  • Libraries have been mired in this issue for a very long time. We know the system sucks. We hate the system. We are trying to change the system. We also recognize this isn’t a quick solution. We have to educate our users and the public. We have to advocate for funding and Open Access. (No more unfunded mandates, thanks!) You think we’re happy with JSTOR right now? Not really. Let’s work together and make something better

Which all goes back to my earlier critique of the show – they really should have had a librarian on the panel. A lot of the discussion, like whether or not the SFPL has access to JSTOR (it does), would have been more focused if instead of speculation they had somebody who knew all about how people access scholarly publishing. The advocates are hugely important, but they need to partner with libraries and librarians. This isn’t really anything new and all of you librarians are tired of hearing it over and over again.

And that is all I got for this morning’s rant. Time to go listen to some twee and chill out.

1 thought on Free Kittens: Aaron Swartz, Open Access, and public perceptions

  1. I agree that publishing costs need to be written into grants. There’s some funders who are pushing for this, but by and large it is not a line item that most people are considering. What many of these discussions lack is a person who fully understands the business of publishing. A librarian would be a great inclusion, from an institutional standpoint.

    With a better understanding of the issue, hopefully the discussion will move from “free” to “open” and talk about the viable solutions that everyone can contribute to, rather than just shouting from rooftops whenever something bad happens.

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