Here is Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) setting out his case.*

OK, OK. These are attractive ideas, and Reed Elsevier is an almost irresistible target. But scandal? Slow down. Of course there’s a powerful case to be made for free speech, but what clouds the issue is the problem that “free” as well as meaning unconstrained, liberated, available without restriction also means without payment. Lack of censorship is something we can all get behind: lack of payment is a bit more problematic, whether you think Elsevier is guilty of overcharging or not. (A separate issue, I think.)

Digital enthusiasts seem to me to have a built-in tendency to overstate their case. To them computerization is so obvious, so intuitive, and so straightforward, that they fail to consider the effects of hundreds of years of evolution in the publishing business, some of which may be ripe for revision, but much of which still works well. It may be terrible that Indian researchers cannot afford to subscribe to JSTOR or to Elsevier’s journals, but it could only become a problem once we had an on-line record which holds out the possibility of easy access. Long before we had the Internet, and any conception of world-wide distribution of academic content by any means other than the old-fashioned way involving printing presses and cargo ships, most scholars had little access to the majority of scholarship. Consider an Erasmus, going from country to country in order to visit the libraries where the books he wanted to look at might be found. Nobody would deny that it might be a good thing if everyone throughout the world could access every journal article ever written, but just asserting that and then helping yourself free of charge isn’t really a viable business model.

Another argument which actually has less force than at first might appear is this appeal to the fact that the poor academic, having slaved away creating this important bit of research has it whisked away from him at the last minute by rapacious publishing companies. Keeping that argument in your mind, consider the other argument made about how we taxpayers have paid for this work beforehand, by paying the salaries of these toilers in the groves of academe. By writing their journal articles, as part of their job, assistant professors become more likely to be considered for promotion. The two arguments cancel one another out. I don’t altogether buy either of them.

There just are costs involved in making research available on-line and surely those businesses which have laid out the funds to create the potential for such distribution can legitimately be said to deserve remuneration. After all, that’s why they created their service in the first place. These are still early days — one of the problems is I suspect that computer people just work at a faster refresh rate than book people and are thus more intolerant of perceived delay — and we have yet to evolve a method of transitioning from the old way of doing things to some new way. One method being tried is providing funds for “publication” as part of the grant funding the original scientific research. This can work in the sciences, but is hard to apply to the humanities: there are not by and large too many companies out there queueing up to fund research into medieval French poetry. The search for a general solution continues. Maybe we’ll never come up with a good answer: maybe the printed book actually has got a lot to recommend it, though of course the Indian scholar without a JSTOR subscription would still have to be able to locate a copy.


* Link via Big Think. This is a brief clip from a documentary film, The Internet’s Own Boy which can be found at YouTube.