I’ve always enjoyed reading Rob Weir’s columns in Inside Higher Education. He’s insightful, his advice is actually good (a rarity on the Internet) and he seemed to have a connection (somehow?) with anthropology. Although a lot of what he writes is for students or new faculty, I’ve benefitted from it. His latest column on Aaron Swartz, however, is a true disaster that indicates his profound naiveté about that last decade or so of thought that has occurred around scholarly publishing.
In his article, Weir argues that downloading JSTOR articles is theft. Downloading and sharing articles, or movies, or books may have detrimental effects on the people who own and create those products, but it is demonstrably not theft. Theft of a physical object — for instance, a bank robbery — denies the former owner of that object the possession and enjoyment of the object. Copying articles does not. That is what makes digital objects like PDFs of journal articles so awesome. They enable sharing. This is obviously, transparently, not theft.
To see this simple fact, imagine we had a magical remote control. You pointed it at a physical object, pressed a button, and a perfect copy of that object was made. Now let’s imagine you went into a bank, made a copy of a twenty dollar bill and then left the bank with your copy of the twenty dollar bill and left the original with the bank. The original is still sitting there in the bank. Who in their right mind could call this theft? Certainly not the government, which charged Swartz with various forms of fraud, but not with theft. Because. He. Didn’t. Steal. Anything.
Having a magic remote control that duplicates money (and sofas, and foie gras, and Xboxes) does not make someone a thief. But it would totally screw with the global economy. Furniture makers would hand-carve exquisite chairs and then lock them away in high-security facilities, charging enormous sums of money to let someone duplicate them with a magic remote control. Because after that guy takes his chair home and his friends admire (and duplicate (but not steal) it) that chair maker isn’t going to make another red cent off of that chair. But then again, what would he need money for?
This is what has happened in the digital world. Publishers have tried to add DRM (digital rights management) to movies, mp3s, and books in order to create scarcity and non-duplicability in the digital world — in order, in other words, to remove the things most unique and important about the digital world in order to make it more like the analog world. They put their content behind paywalls for fear that if anyone got their hands on it, they would share it with others. And, above all, they spend a lot of time and money convincing suckers like Rob Weir that sharing is theft.
One result of this digital plenty is the development of a certain consumerist attitude which smacks of a vulgar sense of entitlement: who cares who makes this stuff? Who cares whether or not they can make a living? I just want to download my free stuff now. And if someone won’t let me — like because they are independent singer-songwriter — then they must be The Enemy.
Rob Weir is right to take issue with this sort of attitude, and to be bothered by the fact that it’s increasingly common amongst college students who are digital natives. But Aaron Swartz was a creator of technology, not just a consumer of it. And he was nothing if not principled. Just because some people want stuff for free doesn’t mean that all people who want to free stuff are bad.
Rob Weir then goes on to trot out the oldest, saddest argument in the book against open access: the only way to cover the costs of journal production is by charging fees for access. A lot of the time when people like Rob Weir say this they believe that they are the hard-nosed realists who are speaking truth to a bunch of naive activists. In fact, the opposite is true — it is inevitably those people who have thought least about scholarly publishing and know little about open access who make this claim. People like Rob Weir are not spoiling the party for all us activists, they are simply late to it.
First argument is that journal production costs money. This is true. Luckily, no one has argued that it does not, so when you make this claim you are not actually disagreeing with anyone. The question is: how much money? A key claim of the open access movement is that journal costs can be radically lowered by using volunteer labor and open source technology. We claim that the main reason academics believe that production costs render open access impossible is because those academics have publications that are incredibly inefficient and, let’s face it, are simply too old to be able to figure out how to use new technology effectively.
The second argument here is about business model. Even with reduced production costs, journals need a revenue stream, don’t they? And isn’t the only way to get it to charge for our product? The answer to this is: no. There are many business models out there — and the less money you need, the more the number of possible options increase. You can seek subsidies, partner with a library or other institution, ask for donations (how much does NPR charge for its product?) or even give up copyediting (something some for-profit publishers have already done). The epitome of the ‘don’t we have to sell this in order to keep it going’ model is the AAA’s publication program, which is so far gone that they can’t even break even by selling their journals. And yet I’m sure that even as their ship is sinking, AAA members will be huddled together on its slowly descending tip coming up with new ways to do the same old thing.
The fact of the matter is that in a digital world, a sustainable publication needs people to care about it: volunteers to keep the software patched, peer reviewers to look over the articles, and libraries and foundations to cover the costs. Many journals have found a community which loves and cares for them. The reality of our present moment is that there are ton of baby-boomer-aged journals run by people who don’t have the energy to take care of them or the expertise to fun them efficiently online. Fewer and fewer people are reading them, and as our grad programs shrink to mer the job market, fewer and fewer people will be submitting to them. They are, at a basic level, unloved. And in a world where you are unloved, the only way to make ends meet is to pimp yourself out — which is exactly what academic journals do when they sign up with for-profit publishers.
I’ve read and appreciated Rob Weir’s columns many times and I have a lot of respect for the guy. But shame on him for writing such a poorly conceptualized, mean-hearted piece.