The Great Aaron Swartz Debate

If you’re attached at all to the Internet, you probably read about the bust-up last week over Aaron Swartz, the JSTOR over-downloader and/or Internet info-hero, depending on what you’re reading. But what’s hit really home for me have been the resulting comments, excerpts below:

From New York Times/Bits Blog

“I have ALWAYS wanted to do that with JSTOR. … JSTOR is the place you go if you want to actually get thoughtful, well-researched, and scholarly analysis on topics. (I should add the caveat — sans the sciences). But access is frighteningly expensive…” Posted by Maximus


“I remember when I was a student, I was the same as Mr. Swartz, I truly believed that this information should be free. Now, I am an author and have published a few articles that are within the JSTOR database. I’m sorry, and I know people may disagree with me, but I do not want anyone stealing or illegally downloading my work. A lot of the research I conduct is not cheap, and JSTOR helps absorb cost for the authors…” Posted by LC

From Wired

“… I’m all for transparency, but the peer-review process is very valuable. The horrendous amount of wrong, biased, or unsubstantiated information on the Internet makes the peer-reviewed model essential for information quality. Someone (e.g. journals) needs to coordinate the peer-reviewed process, and it doesn’t come free. Cheap, yes, because authors and reviewers do not get paid, but not free. It requires storage, bandwidth, paid editors, distribution, and lawyers. …” Posted by Joel Kline


It’s not a new argument, but it’s especially poignant for me now. I’m in library withdrawal, you see, coming off a full decade of free and glorious access to just about any research journal I wanted when I wanted. Now I’m in the real world, and it sucks. I’ve developed little ways around it (BPL, university libraries, friends in academia, the occasional press request) but none are foolproof, and I routinely give up in sheer frustration and either move on or pay up. And if it’s hard for me, with my back doors, what about somebody who doesn’t have all those advantages? Should everyone really be paying anywhere from $10-60 when they want to follow the road more researched?

Part of me says “Hell, no!” — but the last two comments make really good points as well. Good science costs a lot of money. Publishing good science also costs money, and it’s got to come from somewhere. I’m not 100 percent sure what the best solution is, but I think part of it’s going to have to do with the open-access research publishing model, which has grown by friggin leaps and bounds since I started in science. These are the BioMed Centrals, PLoS One’s and British Medical Journals of the world; they put the onus on the authors and/or their funders (with exceptions when necessary). And so far, from what I can tell, they’re flourishing, fairly well respected, and all of ’em are peer-reviewed (an important point raised by the last commenter). As far as this movement goes, personally, I’m loving it, because at 10 p.m. on a Friday night, when I tell it to give me that article and it does … it’s like a rainshower of awesome.

But is open-access publishing the final, end-all-be-all solution? It’s just shifting the economic burden to the authors, so I don’t know. I think more fine-tuning will continue.

What do you think: Is the research paywall working for you? What about open access? How about researchers just posting their work online and soliciting peer review from everyone?