Few people outside of academia had heard of JSTOR, an aggregator and distributor of digital versions of academic journals, until a young activist named Aaron Swartz took his own life last January. Swartz downloaded, without proper authorization, a great many articles from JSTOR via MIT’s servers—as he had earlier downloaded and distributed millions of federal court documents in the PACER) database—because he passionately believed that information should be as free as possible and as widely available as possible.
Because of Swartz’s particular commitments, and because his death brought so much attention to those commitments, much of the conversation about JSTOR and similar databases since he took his life has been about the value of open access to academic and other scholarly work. And open access is indeed something worth fighting for, and something to which databases like JSTOR—and Project Muse, and the Elsevier books and journals in the sciences, and several other major distributors—are necessarily opposed to. (See this recent contretemps for ample evidence of that opposition.)
But open access is not the only issue here, and if academics ever do manage to achieve an end-run around such distributors, they’ll have to confront some deeply entrenched habits of their own. In fact, those habits strengthen the cause of the distributors, and could make it much harder for open access to win the day.
Read more. [Image: The.firebottle/Flickr]