Blog Post

The Tragedies of Scholarly Publishing in 2013

I didn't know Aaron Swartz ( ) but, like everyone interested in and committed to the best modes of  open access and scholarly publishing, I knew very well who he was.  I defer to those like danah boyd and Larry Lessig who knew him personally and who have mourned his death, by suicide, with such compassion, acknowledging their love and also their differences and disagreements, complexities, and then their outrage (at the way he was made an "example" ).  Mostly, they have helped all of us by sharing their own sense of personal devastation for the tragic loss of someone beloved.   I extend my sincerest sympathies to all on this loss.


He was being prosecuted, for those who do not know,  as I understand it, for using MIT's servers to illegally download four million academic articles from J-STOR in order to make proprietary scholarly publishing available for free to all. Whether one violently disagrees or agrees with his tactics, most concede that Swartz was persuaded to the full extant of the law disproportionate to his action, in order to set an "example" for other potential copyright activists.   J-STOR to its credit withdrew from the action against Swartz.  MIT did not.   By all accounts, the prosecution of twenty-six year old Aaron Swartz was relentless.   By some accounts, he faced more jail time, if he lost the case, than murderers or rapists or actual terrorists.   This is in no way to say that what he did was right.  Or wrong.  I don't know enough about the particulars to judge.  It is to say that in the face of such a tragic death, we should take time to really think seriously about scholarly publishing and open access and what they mean.


At some point, I will write a much lengthier blog on this topic but for now I want to get a conversation going simply by reposting something I wrote in response to a Facebook post linking to a piece currently running in Inside Higher Ed:  "Academe is Complicit" by Timothy Burke


Here are a few of my thoughts on this complicity:   The way universities currently sponsor publishing, in the human and interpretive social sciences journal publishing subsidizes book publishing which is necessary because libraries no longer buy books because they spend MILLIONS (no exaggeration) on proprietary, commercial science journals. It's probably more expensive now but five years ago Duke paid about 1.5 million a year in licensing fees to science journals accessible only with a Duke ID card while, eleven miles down the road, at UNC, that library was paying 1.5 million a year in licensing fees to commercial science journals that only people with a UNC ID card could access. [Update and correction:  I've now heard from a knowledgeable source that the actual figure is around $10 million per year for the licensing fees for paper and electronic commercial journals,  just for our university.]


But the crime of having allowed commercial publishers to own these journals and price gauge is also partly our fault: many professional associations sold their journals to these corporate publishers because they get funding for their associations, some of which were near bankruptcy in support of the hotel union workers and who, in solidarity, cancelled their big conventions (necessary to solvency for associations). Others had no such heroic reasons for having to turn to commercial vendors for subsidies via giving away their intellectual goods and intellectual labors in exchange for associational subsidy except that it was the only way to make their associations commercially viably.   Think about that.   If the only way for a professional association to be sustainable is by selling your labor to exploitative publishers, something is seriously wrong.  


Talk about complicity within complicity. Aaron Swartz's tragic death should make us all think about all these complicities.


But there is a different, deeper, kind of complicity in believing that the alternative to giving your intellectual property to proprietary publishers is voluntary, unpaid, or underpaid labor by artists, writers, scholars, and editors.    I edited a scholarly journal American Literature for a decade, I've been a principal in an online open network for a decade.  Anyone who thinks an online network like "runs itself" and is "free" has never been involved in such an operation.  it is a complex, full-tme job subsidized by lots of voluntary labor as well as contributions from universities, grants, and many other methods.   Our information is free to users.  It is by no means "free" to its producers.    We have to think about this.  Seriously.   My partner is a university press editor.  A nonprofit university press within a nonprofit university.   Believe me, this is not an easy role in any atmosphere, and certainly not the present one.  And the bottom line is that  none of these occupations is remunerative.  


Many people out there engage in online or print publication of scholarship, poetry, arts magazines at low or no compensation.   Should their labor be free and un- or undercompensated in an era where Apple and Google have profits the likes of which the world has never seen before?  "Information wants to be free."  Yes.  Of course.  But what about the compensation of those whose labor yields that information. 


Plus another: simply making one's scholarly work available for free, as many scholars are doing with the #aaronswartz hashtag,  while paying my service provider $150 a month for a contract reinforces the value system where by artistic, editorial, and scholarly labor--"ideas"--should be free but technology should cost us an arm and a leg?


No, no I do not like that value system one bit. Not at all.


I co-chaired the committee that resulted in open access at Duke, in a quite defined and limited form but still better than at most universities.   But we all knew this was a stop-gap measure.   The whole system of scholarly publishing needs to be rethought in terms of the economics of the present, including the way science publishing by commercial publishers is commanding outrageous fees---whether online or on paper (most of it is online:  that is another false binary that needs serious deconstructing).  


The same university that squabbles over "subsidy" for humanities and interpretive social science book publishing at their own university presses then pays millions a year to license scientific journals from commercial vendors.  Something is seriously, seriously out of whack here but it is the entire system that needs reconsideration or we, as scholars, throw out the baby with the bathwater.   Or to move from cliche to one of our era's deep, human tragedies:  it is learning nothing from the tragic death of this tragic young man. 


Please, let's all think together and systemically about the future, our values.   We need not simple answers that beg the question.  We need to grapple seriously, systemically with these issues in all their complexity in this historical moment.


And, to all of those who knew and loved Aaron Swartz, I offer deepest sympathy and condolences, on behalf of all of us here at  May he rest in peace.




Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, a 10,000+ network committed to new modes of collaboration, research, learning, and institutional change.  Along with a steering committee of scholars across many fields, Davidson has been directing HASTAC's operations since 2006, when moved to Duke University, where she also co-directs the Ph.D. Lab in Digital Knowledge.   She is author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and  Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (Viking Press). She is co-PI on the HASTAC/MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Competitions.  In October 2012, she and David Theo Goldberg, HASTAC's cofounders, were named Educator of the Year by the World Technology Network.   NOTE:  The views expressed in Cat in the Stack blogs and in NOW YOU SEE IT are solely those of the author and not of HASTAC, nor of any institution or organization. Davidson also writes on her own author blog, .  The paperback of Now You See It was published July 31, 2012 :


1 comment

A few decades ago, as the net began to explode, I was on some committees of what was then the Interactive Services Association, one of the key trade associations of what became the Internet. With ISA strategists, we argued for subsidies to phone companies to convert their copper to fiber optic delivery. They, somewhat surprisingly in the ages of Bush and Clinton, got a few billion to make the conversion (to what Verizon now calls FIOS). And then they all claimed that they could get great speed by using their copper more productively, and pocketed the subsidies.

Those are the same costs that are now being paid for FIOS and Infinity, and other fiber deliverers.

We also, while at ISA meetings, looked at publicly owned cable systems - at the time in Washington State - where the monthly fees were about 20% those of the private and proprietary systems. And, as de-regulation became a mantra under Bush-Clinton-Bush and now Obama, those disparities have even widened.

And, finally, there were discussions then about creating wi-fi zones that might be city-wide, in New York, Boston and a few other key cities. The discussion focused on the value such wi-fi might deliver to citizens and entrepreneurs. And then those discussions died, as the vendors came to control, then strangle, then exploit their unregulated systems.

These are all ancillary to the kind of exploitation you note by scientific journals, but they are central to what we now think of as internet access, information and media driven culture. Greed has most thoroughly corrupted these systems, all of which were first invented by public investment for public purposes. Ironically, the monopoly we once thought of as AT&T (a very different company than today's) was far more "public spirited," and publicly accountable, than those of today.

And, as a final note on the public-private boundaries of academe, you may note that the fifth chapter of the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts notes the University In Cambridge as the fourth branch of the state government. So much for the private financing of Harvard.... So there is ... precedent for this kind of gentle shift of assets, as it were, and universities have been a pivot for a long, long, long time.