Fighting for Open Access

As you may have noticed, this weekend the online world has been filled with news of and responses to the suicide of the young American activist Aaron Swartz. Many excellent personal tributes have been written about the man and his achievements,...


As you may have noticed, this weekend the online world has been filled with news of and responses to the suicide of the young American activist Aaron Swartz. Many excellent personal tributes have been written about the man and his achievements, but here I want to concentrate on the just one aspect: the incident that led to his arrest and probably to his suicide too. Here's how Techdirt explained the situation:

Swartz, the executive director of Demand Progress, was charged with violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, a catch-all designation for "computer activity the US government doesn't like."

Swartz had accessed MIT's computer network to download a large number of files from JSTOR, a non-profit that hosts academic journal articles. US prosecutors claimed he "stole" several thousand files, but considering MIT offered this access for free on campus (and the files being digital), it's pretty tough to square his massive downloading with any idea of "theft."

Not only that, but JSTOR was not the entity pressing charges. It had stopped the downloading and secured the "stolen" content, along with receiving assurances from Swartz that the files would not be distributed. Despite this, the feds felt compelled to arrest Swartz and charge him with four felony counts (one each for Wire Fraud, Computer Fraud, Theft of Information from a Computer and Recklessly Damaging a Computer). At this point, Swartz was looking at a possible 35-year sentence and over $1,000,000 in fines.

As you can see, this touches on the old nonsense about people "stealing" digital content. That's factually and legally incorrect, of course: you can't steal things by making copies of them: at most, it's copyright infringement. But the situation here is far worse. For the files that he was accused of copying were not mp3s, or the latest cinematic blockbuster; they were academic articles stored on MIT's computer network.

That is, they were writings whose main purpose is to pass on knowledge to others, so that they could learn from them and build on them before contributing their own work to the knowledge commons. Moreover, they were stored on the network of an institution whose central tasks are the creation and transmission of knowledge.

It is therefore absurd in the highest degree that Swartz was not only arrested for merely making copies (he didn't pass them on anywhere), but potentially faced several decades in prison for doing so. As many people have noted (and probably many more realised) this sums up why the current copyright system is not just dysfunctional, but fundamentally unjust: it actively stops people sharing knowledge through threats of this kind.

Worse, the truly disproportionate punishments that have been brought in recently have created a Kafkaesque situation where people can face many years in prison for sharing copies of digital files containing knowledge that has been created with the express purpose of being shared.

Swartz lived trying to free knowledge in various ways, as the tributes linked above detail. Unfortunately he also died trying to free knowledge thanks to the vindictive decision of the US authorities to make an example of him to scare the rest of us into acquiescing to the copyright industry's attempts to lock down knowledge.

There is an important opportunity this week to support the movement to make research more freely available, of which Swartz was a part: open access. It's been around for many years – here's an article I wrote back in 2006 noting the parallels with open source. Since then, open access has gone from strength to strength, culminating in the UK government announcing in November that it would make available £10 million specifically to fund open access publication of research. [Update: Hadley Beeman has kindly added some more background to the latest UK government moves – please see the comment at the end of this post for some important links.]

So open access has won in the UK, you might think. And so did I, more or less, until this turned up last week:

The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee will next week hold its first evidence session in a new short inquiry into the Government's open access policy and its implementation by the Research Councils UK (RCUK) (the partnership of the UK's seven research councils).

So what? you might think – surely just a sign that open access has arrived, and their Lord and Ladyships wish to acquaint themselves with it. Well, maybe, maybe not, given two details. First, the issues they are considering:

This short inquiry will consider:

support for universities through funds to cover article processing charges;

embargo periods for articles published under open access;

engagement with publishers, universities learned societies and other stakeholders in developing the new open access policies; and

how the Government should address the concerns raised by the scientific and publishing communities about the policy.

The last question is the key one. The world of scientific publishing hates open access as much as Microsoft hates open source, and has been lobbying equally hard to stop its rise in the UK. That last question looks suspiciously like the real reason this consultation is being held at all – and one whose answer has already been decided, in favour of the "concerns". And if you think I'm reading too much into things, the other killer fact about this enquiry, announced last week, is found at the end of this, taken from the "guidance on submission" [.pdf]:

Written submissions should be provided to the Committee as a Microsoft Word document and sent by e-mail to [email protected] Please do not submit PDFs (if you do not have access to Microsoft Word you may submit in another editable electronic form). If you do not have access to a computer you may submit a paper copy to Chris Atkinson, Clerk to the Science and Technology Committee, Committee Office, House of Lords, London SW1A 0PW, fax 020 7219 4931. The deadline for written evidence is 18 January 2013.

That is, only one week is being given for people to write and send in their submissions – ridiculously brief. It's hard not to see this as an attempt to push through this "consultation" in the shortest time possible, so as to allow the desired result to emerge from the other end with as few distracting opinions being expressed as possible. I therefore urge you to make a submission this week to show that many of us do want open access being put into operation in the UK – and that we are watching out for any attempts to put obstacles in its way.

As regular readers will know, I normally publish my own submissions to these kind of things, but another facet of this one is the following paragraph in the guidance notes:

Submissions become the property of the Committee which will decide whether to accept them as evidence. Evidence may be published by the Committee at any stage. It will normally appear on the Committee's website and will be deposited in the Parliamentary Archives. Once you have received acknowledgement that your submission has been accepted as evidence, you may publicise or publish it yourself, but in doing so you must indicate that it was prepared for the Committee. If you publish your evidence separately, you should be aware that you will be legally responsible for its content.

Hilarious, no? You can tell their lord and ladyships are not too used to this openness stuff. So, against that background, here are some thoughts on the issues being explored, rather than my submission verbatim.

Academic articles paid for by the taxpayers should be released as open access immediately, with no embargo period. After all, if the logic is that we have paid for the research, and therefore should be able to see its results, there is no reason why an artificial embargo period should be imposed. Either we paid or we didn't; if we did, publish immediately.

Similarly, the "concerns raised by the scientific and publishing communities about the policy" are just companies whining because they have lost their remunerative monopolies. Academic papers are written by researchers for free, submitted to editors who consider them (for free) and then pass them out to be refereed by yet more researchers, also for free. The only contribution scientific publishers make is some editing – hardly enough to warrant the 30% profit margins some have notched up for years. Having enjoyed this licence to print money from the work of others paid for by the public, they have zero rights to object when taxpayers dare to ask to see that research without paying for it again, through the nose (per article fees are often £20 or more.)

I may re-word this slightly, but you get the general drift. Basically, open access is an idea that has not only come, but which should have been put in place years ago. The Parliamentary Committee must make clear to academic publishers that the days of huge profits and fat-cat salaries for senior executives are over, and that they need to come up with ways of thriving in a world where digital content is freely available, just like everyone else.

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