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<nettime> Timothy Burke: Academe Is Complicit
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 20 Jan 2013 21:22:46 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Timothy Burke: Academe Is Complicit

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Academe Is Complicit
January 15, 2013 - 3:00am
By Timothy Burke

I don't think there's much more to say about Aaron Swartz. I didn't know
him personally, but like many others I am a beneficiary of the work he
did. And I have agreed for much of my life as an academic with the
thinking that led him to his fateful act in a closet at the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology. Most centrally, that there are several ethical
imperatives that should make everything that JSTOR (or any comparable
bundling of scholarly publication) holds freely available to everyone:
much of that work was underwritten directly or indirectly by public funds,
the transformative impact of open access on inequality is already
well-documented, and it's in keeping with the obligations and values that
scholars allege to be central to their work.

Blame is coming down heavy on MIT and JSTOR, both of which were at pains
to distance themselves from the legal persecution of Swartz even before
news of his suicide broke, particularly JSTOR, which very early on asked
that Swartz not be prosecuted. Blame is coming down even more heavily, as
it should, on federal prosecutors who have been spewing a load of spurious
garbage about the case for over a year. They had discretion and they
abused it grievously in an era when vast webs of destructive and criminal
activities have been discretionarily ignored if they stem from powerful
men and powerful institutions. They chose to be Inspector Javert, chasing
down Swartz over a loaf of bread.

But if we're talking blame, then there's a diffuse blame that ought to be
conferred. In a way, it's odd that MIT should have been the bagman for the
ancien regime: its online presence and institutional thinking about
digitization have otherwise been quite forward-thinking in many respects.
If MIT allowed itself to be used by federal prosecutors looking to put an
intellectual property head on a pike, that is less an extraordinary
gesture by MIT and more a reflection of the academic default.

I've been frustrated for years, like other scholars and faculty members
who take an interest in these issues, at the remarkable lassitude of
academia as a whole toward publication, intellectual property and
digitization. Faculty who tell me passionately about their commitment to
social justice either are indifferent to these concerns or are sometimes
supportive of the old order. They defend the ghastly proposition that
universities (and governments) should continue to subsidize the production
of scholarship that is then donated to for-profit publishers who then
charge high prices to loan that work back to the institutions that
subsidized its creation, and the corollary, demanded by those publishers,
that the circulation of such work should be limited to those who pay those

Print was expensive, print was specialized, and back in the age of print,
what choice did we have? We have a choice now. Everything, everything,
about the production of scholarship can be supported by consortial funds
within academe. The major added value is provided by scholars, again
largely for free, in the work of peer review. We could put the publishers
who refuse to be partners in an open world of inquiry out of business
tomorrow, and the only cost to academics would be the loss of some names
for journals. Every journal we have can just have another name and be
essentially the same thing. Every intellectual, every academic, every
reader, every curious mind that wants to read scholarly work could be
reading it tomorrow if they had access to a basic Internet connection,
wherever they are in the world. Which is what we say we want.

I once had a colleague tell me a decade ago that this shift wouldn't be a
positive development because there's a digital divide, that not everyone
has access to digital devices, especially in the developing world. I asked
this colleague, whose work is focused on the U.S., if she knew anything
about the costs and problems that print imposed on libraries and archives
and universities around the world, and of course she didn't. Digitized
scholarship can't be lost or stolen the way that print can be, it doesn't
have to be mailed, it doesn't have to have physical storage, it can't be
eaten by termites, it can't get mold on it. If it were freed from the
grasp of the publishers who charge insane prices for it, it could be
disseminated for comparatively small costs to any institution or reader
who wants access. Collections can be uniformly large everywhere that
there's a connection: what I can read and research, a colleague in Nairobi
or Beijing or Moscow or São Paulo can read and research, unless their
government (or mine) interferes. That simply couldn't be in the age of
print. Collections can support hundreds or thousands of simultaneous
readers rather than just the one who has something checked out. I love the
materiality of books, too, but on these kinds of issues, there's no
comparison. And no justification.

The major thing that stands in the way of the potentiality of this change
is the passivity of scholars themselves. Aaron Swartz's action, and its
consequences, had as much to do with that generalized indifference as it
did with any specific institution or organization. Not all culture needs
to be open, and not all intellectual property claims are spurious. But
scholarship should be and could be different, and has a claim to
difference deep in its alleged values. There should be nothing that stops
us from achieving the simplest thing that Swartz was asking of us, right
now, in memory of him.

Timothy Burke is professor of history at Swarthmore College.

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