February 17, 2018

Inside the Shadow Factory | Peer to Peer Review

Barbara Fister, Library Journal Academic Newswire columnist
Photo by Debora Miller

When Aaron Swartz, an open information activist, was indicted by federal prosecutors for downloading as much of JSTOR as he could using a laptop computer wired into MIT’s servers (and of course without authorization from JSTOR or MIT), people’s responses stake out the extreme opposites of approaches to accessing research in the digital age. In the words of the U.S. attorney, “stealing is stealing,” though he did not charge Swartz with theft. He was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer, damaging a computer, aiding and abetting and criminal forfeiture. Demand Progress, an activist group that primarily deals with digital rights, claims that it was basically like checking a lot of books out of the library. Uh, no. Downloading four million articles from a proprietary database is nothing at all like checking out books. It’s legal to share a book you bought in ways that you can’t share articles in a licensed database, but that legal sharing does not include making a copy, which is what happens when you download an article. Besides, if a person without a library card checked out four million books using the back door when the library was closed, somebody would probably call the cops.

It’s not clear what Swartz planned to do with the articles, but the incident raises some interesting issues. Many bloggers commenting on it wondered why we don’t freely share the research that is written for the express purpose of sharing ideas. That’s a question that scholars should ask of themselves more often instead of continuing to do what they do on autopilot.

Peering under the hood of scholarly publishing
It also points out how little scholars who depend on libraries understand about what they are doing with their research that determines what kind of access they and everyone else in the world will have to that research in future. So long as the library keeps them supplied with what they need, they don’t think about the unaffiliated researcher, or researchers affiliated with poorly-funded libraries. They don’t think about how the students they are training today will get their hands on research in the future. That seems extremely careless, considering how much effort they put into training future scientists and scholars to write articles and publish them the way they do.

Swartz picked an interesting target. JSTOR isn’t a money-grubbing publisher, though many of those who commented on the story assumed it is. It archives and makes available a lot of material that doesn’t have a commercial market at all, unlike science publishers who have a large audience outside the academy willing to pay for information. Until recently, JSTOR wasn’t about providing access to current research; its main purpose was to preserve the backfiles of scholarly journals in a digital format so that libraries didn’t have to keep adding more bricks and mortar to house their growing journal collections. That the archive could be easily searched meant that JSTOR quickly became the Google of the scholarly world and a favorite of students who know they will find something there, with little effort, they can cite that’s safely scholarly.

JSTOR had one other unintended consequence. Though it contributed to a completely new way of doing research, it also sustained the old way. In order to get the cooperation of publishers, JSTOR had to build into the system some of the constraints that paper journals have-and then some.

Oh, those conservative academics!
The persistence of the journal form is not just a function of preserving an economic model; it’s the product of an entrenched conservatism among academics who distrust born-digital information. Dan Cohen of the Center for History and New Media has some interesting things to say about this entrenched lack of imagination and vague but strong distrust of doing things differently. In the introduction to his forthcoming new book, The Ivory Tower and the Open Web, he sketches out how digital media has consistently been underestimated and misconstrued, describing how a political blog that used data to analyse issues was first dismissed, then acquired by the New York Times. The Gray Lady now describes it as being “devoted to rigorous analysis of politics, polling, public affairs, sports, science and culture, largely through statistical means.” Under the banner of the Times, it’s suddenly trustworthy information.

Cohen argues that academics don’t need to continue dressing up and locking down their research in 19th century formats-but scholars distrust others means of expression. As he puts it, they still think of born-digital media as “the locus of ‘information’ rather than knowledge, of ‘recreation’ rather than education,” discounting some of the fine long-form writing and analysis being done online.

Academics think, still, in terms of containers: finished research is journal articles and monographs that are now online but look exactly as they did when they were on paper. As Cohen points out, “we have done far less than we should have by this point in imagining and enacting what academic work and communication might look like if it was digital first.”

Getting out of the warehouse business
This is an interesting problem for libraries, because while we are frustrated by the library-as-warehouse notion of what libraries are about, we fall into the habit of putting most of our time and money into resources that we have to pay for, assuming that access to locked-down information is our role; open access information can fend for itself. Once it escapes the trap of being behind a toll gate, it also scampers out of the library. How many libraries that are investing in ebooks make an effort to select and catalog open access monographs? Shouldn’t we value those as highly as that which we pay for? Shouldn’t we help people discover this scholarship, even if it’s free? Even more telling, how many librarians still explain proprietary databases to students by saying “we pay for this information, so it’s higher quality than what you can find out on the web”? What kind of a mixed message is that to faculty who are sceptical of the open access movement?

Cohen links open minds willing to consider new formats for scholarship with open access. “Ultimately, openness is at the core of any academic model that can operate effectively on the web: it provides a way to disseminate our work easily, to assess what has been published, and to point to what’s good and valuable. Openness can naturally lead-indeed, is leading-to a fully functional shadow academic system for scholarly research and communication that exists beyond the more restrictive and inflexible structures of the past.”

The new PressForward project is designed to open both minds and access by gathering together the best of online scholarly writing, by providing a platform for born digital scholarship, and offering scholarly communities an easily adaptable set of tools to do it themselves. This is the kind of work libraries should be doing. This is the kind of work we must support if we are serious about being something other than warehouses and bill-payers.

When Swartz downloaded and set free a trove of public domain court documents trapped in the cumbersome PACER system, he demonstrated that there was a way to make these documents free and searchable other than the one the government concocted and made publicly available in only 17 libraries, charging a fee for every downloaded page. It’s not clear what Swartz had in mind when he downloaded those JSTOR articles, but it should make us pause. Though the articles in JSTOR are not in the public domain, there is not good reason, other than lack of imagination and will, for why scholars and academic libraries can’t make them free to all.

Author Information
Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published last year by Minotaur Books.
Barbara Fister About Barbara Fister

Barbara Fister is a librarian at Gustavus Adolphus College, St. Peter, MN, a contributor to ACRLog, and an author of crime fiction. Her latest mystery, Through the Cracks (see review), was published in 2010 by Minotaur Books.
Photo by Debora Miller