Academic Articles For All?

The death of Aaron Swartz, who potentially faced significant jail-time for downloading JSTOR files, has sparked debate about public access to academic research. Freddie DeBoer’s view:

Here’s the point I want to make about journal archive access: I have never talked to anyone– arts, professional schools, humanities, social sciences, or STEM– who was opposed in theory to the idea of free access. You’ve got to do something to rebuild the revenue streams of the academic journals, many of which operate at a loss already. But as a principle, giving people free access to journal articles is as close to a universal stance as I can think of among academics. Why wouldn’t it be? Researchers believe that their research has value, that it matters, and they want it to be read.

Caleb Crain is conflicted:

I come by my ambivalence about JSTOR honestly. On the one hand, I’ve written a handful of the articles in it, none of which I ever have been or ever will be paid for, and all of which I wish could circulate freely. And on the other hand, I tap the database almost every working day and find it invaluable, and I know that few worthy things happen in our society unless they can be monetized. If Aaron’s goal was to protest the commercialization of scholarship, I’m not sure he picked the best target. JSTOR is a non-profit, probably better understood as one of the damaged offspring of American higher education than as an active villain.

I would think that colleges and universities with massive endowments would be able to afford to lose some of the revenues they get from keeping their research papers sealed off from the public. If only in the general interest of liberal learning. Online courses have made lectures effectively free for milions, but the feds get to force a young and brave genius into suicide for wanting to spread scholarship around the world. The whole thing, in my view, is obscene and the more I think about it, the angrier I become and the more ashamed I am that I did not cover this case earlier.