By Kevin Webb
The opinions expressed are his own.
Reading about Aaron Swartz’s recent run-in with the law dredged up all kinds of feelings. I’m a long-time admirer of his work and was saddened to hear of his troubles. At the same time, reading the indictment, I was surprised by the seriousness of the charges and evidence against him.
I was also reminded of my own attempts at similar work, collecting and analyzing journal articles, patents, and various forms of metadata. I’ve lost count of how many hours I’ve spent sitting in basements of academic buildings, breaking federal laws in the pursuit of answers. And I was reminded of my colleagues who still spend their days painstakingly scraping data off the web–sometimes legally sometimes not–the name of academic inquiry.
None of us want to break the law. It’s simply that we don’t have a choice.
The mechanisms for sharing academic discourse are broken. They barely even function as systems for connecting interested parties within existing disciplines. Ask just about anyone who spends their time writing or consuming scholarly work and you will hear a litany of complaints about how poorly suited the academic publishing industry is to modern day collaboration.
I’ve spent most of my professional career just outside of the academy but have seen the failures of these systems first hand. I formed my opinion on the matter as a undergraduate assistant in a major neuroscience laboratory–building publishing tools to help the lab’s director break copyright law.
His work regularly appeared in and on the cover of major journals. Yet he was in a field that was moving faster than the journals could help facilitate. He took matters into his own hands by publishing the articles on the laboratory’s site, almost always violating the licensing terms of his own work (rights now held by Elsevier or AAAS, not the author). I asked about the legality what we were doing and was told not to worry. If the journals didn’t like him bending or breaking the law he’d publish elsewhere and it would be their loss.