Annoyed Librarian
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Inside Annoyed Librarian

The Clueless Fight the Non-Power

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.



  1. I agree with the sentiment that a few commercial databases have a monopolistic stranglehold on things right now, but I take issue with idiots making sweeping statements that liken charging for access to “private theft of public culture.”

    People who say things like that have obviously never bothered to look at the sticker price of a good old fashioned paper journal. Someone has to cover the cost of publishing this stuff, and the “information wants to be free so I shouldn’t have to pay for it” idiots aren’t likely to cough up any of that dough any time soon.

  2. These people don’t realize how this research works and the costs associated with it. These journals are so expensive for the same reason text books are expensive and medications are expensive. Good ones take a long time to produce and many people have spent many more hours getting this information right. This all goes into the cost. These journals don’t just publish anything by anybody.

    You’ve gotten it right again AL.

  3. @Andrew, but that sticker price is as ridiculous as the industry that backs it up. If it’s not profitable to print the journals – just distribute digital copies for free. Or, let the authors publish the content themselves – most would be more than happy to. Remember, in today’s world, a scientist is not allowed to post their own article on their own website if it’s been published in a journal. If there’s a market for a centralized repository, people will pay. But it doesn’t justify the walled garden on scientific progress.

  4. @Micah,

    There is a market. People ARE paying. Authors can publish the content themselves, if they don’t want it in the journal.

    There are costs to the journals that aren’t print related. Why, oh why, would ANYONE host the repository of free digital content? Why would the investment be made to publish such things if there is no money or profit motive? Even JStor has a staff that gets paid. How do you think they get their salaries? Do you understand how the world works? You know that NOTHING is free, right?

    Sorry, but it’s this type of NONTHINKING that really gets to me. My advice @Micah, grow up get a job (if you don’t have one) and then work really hard on something that you’ve put your time and money into only to have everyone tell you to give it away for free without any compensation.

  5. Randal Powell says:

    The research which makes these journals valuable in the first place is funded by government money, NGOs, and students’ tuition. The value-added that the journal publishers bring is quality control and distribution, which is very small compared to the time and money involved in doing the research and writing the articles; in fact, many journals charge fees to submitters, advertise, or make heavy use of volunteers to cover costs. In that sense there is a “private theft of public culture” involved here.

    Academic libraries are spending, in aggregate, a huge amount of money so that students and faculty can access databases of articles. And then when a student graduates and wants to continue their research independently – whether for their own intellectual development, or to start their own business – they cannot access the latest research in a straightforward way. The whole point of university research, to help move society forward, starts to break down when Joe and Jane Public can’t access the research that is supposed to be for their benefit.

    I think that the old system of charging for print copies of journals made sense at one time. Academia was not as powerful and organized. There were not as many journals. Joe and Jane Public could just buy one or two that concerned them. Large academic libraries would buy most of the journals available because they had to serve the whole range of scholarly interests, and wanted to collect and index all of the important articles.

    Today’s system is kind of insane. For the money spent on these journal databases, universities could create their own quality control systems for article selection and load the articles into databases accessible to anyone over the internet. This would save money and provide an opportunity for librarians to organize the articles in a much more elegant way.

  6. It’s a lot harder and more expensive than you might think, Randall. What you are paying for through JSTOR is the elegant organization and aggregation, which is — surprise surprise! — primarily done by librarians. And apparently, that is too expensive for some to stand.

  7. Library Student says:

    “Why would Swartz want to download what is likely gigabytes of information? His history includes a study co-authored with Shireen Barday, which looked through thousands of law review articles looking for law professors who had been paid by industry patrons to write papers. That study was published in 2008 in the Stanford Law Review” (

    I read somewhere (can’t find it now) that some people believe that he either chose JSTOR deliberately because they wouldn’t press charges, or because he is actually doing a study of some sort.

    But what I find really interesting is how this movement is going mainstream. I keep thinking that the younger generation expects to find all the latest information on current subjects freely available on the web. It’s not too hard to find content created by experts and innovators. So it must be puzzling to young people why there is such a fuss over a bunch of old, static articles. The biggest question with this story seems to be why he chose such boring content, but I think the point might be that boring-ness. Add the availability of good free content to the younger generations’ expectations (shown by the adoption of this trend toward supporting hackers), multiplied by the nature of social media… I just don’t see the academic publishing model holding up.

    • Library Student says:

      I don’t agree. There is plenty of good content, the peer review process is antiquated and needs to be changed. The expectation that everything should be available at no cost is not a problem, it’s a reality. People have that expectation now. My point is that the system needs to change to meet that expectation. Hackers and social media won’t “fix the problem” but they will bring attention to it. Today, I found citations for 10-15 articles that would be helpful for a paper I’m working on. I was able to access only 1. Because my school’s library did not purchase these articles. Because they are too expensive. However, my professor requires peer reviewed articles. Articles that I can’t access. The academic model isn’t working anymore. I am sorely tempted to utilize expert blogs for the paper, which are more current anyway, and explain to the professor why.

  8. “The biggest question with this story seems to be why he chose such boring content, but I think the point might be that boring-ness. Add the availability of good free content to the younger generations’ expectations (shown by the adoption of this trend toward supporting hackers), multiplied by the nature of social media… I just don’t see the academic publishing model holding up.”

    Except we don’t have good free content (in the academic peer reviewed sense) that’s just a Google search away. The expectation that everything should be available immediately at no cost is the problem, not the solution.

    I also don’t see how hackers and social media are going to fix the problem either. These so-called hackers are the same small but vocal minority that gets up in arms whenever anyone suggests that intellectual property should be paid for. They’re still wrong whether we’re talking about downloading the latest season of Two and a Half Men or pilfering the JSTOR database. There might be a bit of flash in the pan outrage via social media, but that focus will be channeled to cute pictures of grammatically questionable cats by next week.

    Academic publishing is changing because of the Internet,to be sure, but this is just a bunch of kids trying to mask intellectual property theft as a freedom of speech issue.

  9. A.L.

    Please check your RSS feed. It appears to be broken.

    [AL: it’s working for me. Anyone else having problems?]

  10. The problem might be that your RSS button on the top right isn’t pointing to a legit address:


    You’ve got an extra http// in there at the beginning.

    [AL: Thanks for the feedback. I’ll report it to LJ.]

  11. I have not been able to have RSS feeds from the Library Journal blogs for several weeks. Since I’m receiving them from other sources, there must have either been a change in the LJ website that has not been updated in the RSS feed area, or the website as a whole has been changed in some way. I remember reading that the LJ website had a major change in June? My RSS feeds are through Yahoo.

  12. Oops, didn’t see Andrew’s post. Thank you!

  13. Annoyed Librarian says:

    I have reported the RSS issue to LJ. It looks like a problem for several of the blogs, not just the AL.

  14. Michael Collins says:

    Sounds like a geographical clue to your identity :)
    Thanks for another great post, I hope common sense prevails in Washington. Enjoy your weekend.

  15. No free academic content? Have you looked at or Many topics are not (yet) covered, but it can be done, and it is being done.

    Why publish research for free? Because some researchers who love creating and sharing knowledge worked out ways to get paid anyway, I suppose. Besides, they were already giving their work away, as do the reviewers. Often, work paid for with public money, which is public property.

    The whole industry started with researchers writing letters to each other because they felt a need, or an obligation, to show others what they had discovered. Aside from taking over the task of hiring a few editors and compositors, I would be hard pressed to say what value an academic publisher brings to the table today.

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