February 7, 2013
Open Access For All?
What I am writing here about is a complicated topic. Should scientific and scholarly articles be available to all? Should paying for these articles become a thing of the past? The complication comes in the form of hacking. The two main sides to this issue come from the generation who believes that these articles should be available online, for free, to all of the public and the more traditional side who believes that opening up these articles may jeopardize the peer-review process and bankrupt academic journals.
The LA Times recently published an article about this very situation. In the wake of Aaron Swartz’s suicide, many have been discussing these sides. Swartz definitely represented the open-access for all believers. He believed in the importance that scientific and academic articles be available for anyone to read. He did not like that many of these were protected by payment, payments that many cannot afford, which means that only those who can afford the costs can have access to the information.
Swartz worked to enlighten others on this discrepancy. In 2008, along with Carl Malamud, a technologist and outspoken activist for open access to information, he used a free trial of Public Access to Court Electronic Records, which the federal government offered. They downloaded 20 million pages of court documents.
Then in 2011, Swartz was charged with breaking into the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to gain illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription database for scientific and literary journals. The governmental prosecutors alleged that he intended to create a free database a la Napster for scholarly and scientific research.
Okay, so here is where I am torn. I believe in the importance of open access. I believe people should have the same capabilities to knowledge and information. I do not believe that only those who can afford knowledge (i.e. paying for articles) should be able to have access to it.
I do not like hacking, though, because it is dangerously close to plagiarism. Hacking and plagiarism are the antithesis of knowledge. Swartz hacked to gain access to the information in order to post it for others. He did not plagiarize it; however, others might.
Moreover, I also believe in the importance of good, reliable information, which is why the peer-review process of scholarly and scientific journals is so necessary and important. We want access to good information, not just the ramblings of any Joe or Jane Doe.
As I see it, we need to create a method of insuring reliable and peer-reviewed articles along with incorporating open access for all. I do not agree with the assumption that open access would lead to bankrupted journals. Journals could use advertisements online just like other websites in lieu of a pay-per-article model. It is important to think of improvements. Change does not always mean less.
I think there is a way to marry the ideas of the Swartz generation and the older generations. Knowledge should be available to any who seek it, but the quality should not suffer. Swartz’s intentions were good although perhaps he used questionable ethics in his actions. I am not comfortable deciding that. What I am comfortable with is continuing the discussion of how to give more access to knowledge.
Image Credit: Photos.com