A month ago the firmament of new media lost one of its most luminous and infuriating stars when Aaron Swartz committed suicide at the age of 26.
There was much speculation about the reasons, but his fans blamed the multiple charges of fraud and information theft brought against him by the US Federal Attorney.
As part of his campaign to open up the often closed domain of academic research, Swartz had used an alias to access the electronic network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he downloaded much of a database with academic journals. He gave it back. But it was the relentless way in which MIT, the American academic old world’s temple to new technology, pursued its case – or so his supporters felt – that drove the computer whiz to his grave.
The reverberations are still being felt. A petition calling for the removal of the lead prosecutor has just passed the 25,000 threshold that requires a response from the US administration. MIT has launched an internal investigation. Some academics have posted research papers online by way of memorial tributes. And the case highlights, as the WikiLeaks saga did before it, the question of where legitimate political protest stops and crime begins.
Strangely, though, this case has been treated primarily as a US phenomenon, even though, like anything touching information in the internet age, it is global – both in the sense that it cannot be contained by national boundaries, and in the sense that something of the sort could happen anywhere. In both respects, these are early skirmishes in what could become an all-out war over access to academic work, and it so happens that the first real engagement could take place here in Britain.
The opening volley was fired last summer, when Dame Janet Finch signed off a report on “Accessibility, sustainability, excellence: how to expand access to research publications”. But a battle came into prospect only last month when the universities minister, David Willetts, announced that he was accepting her central recommendation about open access and that this thorough shake-up of academic publishing was to be implemented within the year.
Now it would be possible to make some unkind remarks here about the glacial pace at which academia moves – contrasted, as scholars would see it, with the ephemeral nature of the media – which would only perpetuate the hostile stereotypes on either side. The risk, though, is that an argument about timing obscures the principle at the heart of the proposals. Which is that research conducted at British universities at the taxpayers’ expense should be accessible online to anyone who wants to see it for any reason. That includes universities, companies and individuals, anywhere.
What your average British taxpayer might deem only logical and right, however – so much so indeed as to pose questions about why this is not standard practice already – has thrown the academic world into turmoil. Alarm, even panic, stalk the ivory tower. At the start of the year, the president and past president of the Royal Historical Society penned a joint letter to members under the unusually direct heading, “open access publishing”. Among the many others trying to fend off the proposals is the Council for the Defence of British Universities, which numbers Sir David Attenborough and Richard Dawkins in its ranks.
Their arguments, set out with ostensible sweet reason by the RHS presidents, are that academic publishing as currently constituted guarantees high standards; that any change affecting costs and benefits needs a lead time far longer than the one year proposed, and that the change would unreasonably restrict academics in their choice of where to publish.
The professors do not deny that the publishing process can be improved. Access to academic journals of all kinds is hugely expensive, and the internet has not reduced the costs as much as hoped because checking and editing are still needed. They defend to the hilt the practice of “peer review” according to which specialists validate research in their own field and argue that if, as proposed, universities take responsibility for posting their research online, publication could become subject to internal politics.
Behind all this, though, it is possible to detect a large number of special interests. The financial ones are easy to understand, including lost fees from subscriptions, possible lost revenue from spin-offs and perhaps lost royalties for books. But the suggestion that “peer review” is anything like perfect or without favouritism will be greeted with the hollow laughter it deserves.
A particularly weak strand in their argument is their attempt to draw a distinction between science and the arts. Of course, they say, scientific research should be opened up –and to an extent already has been – because of the potential benefits. But research in the humanities is quite different and longer-term. What is going on here is nothing less than protectionism applied to work that has been publicly funded, coupled with a barely disguised contempt for the lay audience. Deep down, it seems, they fear casting their pearls before… well, proles.
The RHS and the Institute of Historical Research are holding an open meeting next month to discuss their response to the proposed changes further. They will doubtless hear a litany of reasons why the humanities’ research we have paid for should remain behind prohibitive paywalls or elite academic log-ins, lest the uninitiated get the wrong idea. If they are really interested in furthering the cause of knowledge, they should reverse tracks, and fast. It’s just a pity that Aaron Swartz won’t be flying in to lead the protest.