I’ve been so busy wilting in the heat like the delicate flower I am that I’ve had a hard time keeping up with my reading. This global warming thing has gone too far, and after the debt limit shenanigans in Congress are finished, I wish the House Republicans would initiate some legislation making it illegal for it to exceed 90 degrees Fahrenheit north of the Mason-Dixon line.
Despite the wilting, I couldn’t help but notice that a brilliant but foolish young man named Aaron Swartz was indicted for “wire fraud, computer fraud and unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer” after he hacked MIT’s computer system, or, if you believe the disinformation circulating the Internet, for downloading too many articles from JSTOR.
The disinformation comes from a group called Demand Progress (founded by Swartz), and they’re none too happy! The Executive Director claims that “it’s like trying to put someone in jail for allegedly checking too many books out of the library.”
From the NYT article: “according to the indictment, Mr. Swartz used several methods to grab articles, even breaking into a computer-wiring closet on the M.I.T. campus and setting up a laptop with a false identity on the school network for free JSTOR access under the name Gary Host — or when shortened for the e-mail address, ‘ghost.’ When retrieving the computer, he hid his face behind a bicycle helmet, peeking out through the ventilation holes.”
Yeah, that pretty much sounds like the behavior of someone checking out too many books from the library. If I saw a guy wearing a bicycle helmet as a mask in my library trying to check out any books at all, I’d call security.
The commenters at Reddit (co-founded by Swartz) aren’t too happy either. There’s just no pleasing some people.
There is something a little strange about the case, since neither JSTOR and MIT want him prosecuted. This seems to be something of a victimless crime. And yet, if you know much about the United States prison-industrial system, you’ll know that our prisons are full of people convicted of victimless crimes.
Johnny Law possibly wants to punish Swartz because he’s such a radical activist. For example,
In 2008, Mr. Swartz released a “Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto,” calling for activists to “fight back” against the sequestering of scholarly papers and information behind pay walls.
“It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture,” he wrote. One goal: “We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks.”
Oooh, a guerrilla manifesto, how dangerous!
I guess the grand tradition of civil disobedience isn’t what it used to be, but at least Swartz isn’t alone. Another poor sod is protesting the Swartz indictment by posting online 18,592 scientific articles in a bittorrent file. He’s very selfrighteous, too. “If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified.” You rebel, you!
He’s choosing to target the ill-gained income of a poisonous industry by posting pre-1923 articles from, get this, the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society. Oh my.
It’s a pity these two civilly disobedient protesters didn’t talk to a librarian first, because any good academic librarian should have been able to point out to both of them what clowns they were making of themselves. I mean, seriously, JSTOR and the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society?
These are hardly representatives of a “poisonous industry.” Maybe JSTOR was the only database Swartz had heard of, which would have made him a representative college student. The other guy just posted articles that he happened to have had on him, so it’s not like he went to much trouble.
Next time you want to fight the powers that be in science publishing, leave JSTOR alone. JSTOR might have four million articles, but the vast majority of them aren’t scientific articles. Neither JSTOR nor the Royal Society are commercial publishers, and it’s those babies that really control science publishing.
You brave hackers want to hack something to share the wealth of scientific journals? Try Thomson Reuters’ Web of Knowledge (40 million or so articles) or Elsevier’s ScienceDirect (10 million or so articles).
One article I read on the Swartz case said that a JSTOR subscription could cost a university as much as $50,000. That was probably supposed to impress the readers as a large sum. That’s peanuts compared to what libraries pay for Web of Knowledge or ScienceDirect. Depending on a range of factors, libraries might pay millions of dollars to the top four or five commercial science journal publishers.
Freeing scientific publishing by targeting JSTOR is the equivalent of those WTO protesters in Seattle years ago smashing store windows with garbage cans. If you’re going to fight the power, at least figure out who has the power first. I never thought I’d say this, but in this case if you need to know who has the power, ask a librarian.