Archaeology, Open Access, RIP Aaron Swartz

Posted on January 14, 2013

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Last week Aaron Swartz killed himself because of the issue of Open Access. He was facing 35 years in prison for trying give people access to pre-1920s publications e.g. not under copyright. He also had a history of depression which probably played a significant aspect in his decision to kill himself. Obvious not being Aaron makes it hard to determine his exact motivation but his family and friends attribute it to the fact that he was facing years in prison. I was doing to write more about this but Eric at Digging Digitally has done a brilliant job. Check out his post.

And that’s the crux of the problem, and why Open Access is  one of the key ethical issues now faced by archaeology. Pay walls and intellectual property barriers carry real, and clearly very oppressive, legal force. I doubt, the SAA, the Archaeological Institute for America (AIA), or the American Anthropological Association (AAA) would want to press for felony charges or long prison terms if someone illegally downloaded a journal article from one of their servers. Nevertheless, Swartz’s case demonstrates that such barriers clearly carry dire legal implications.

There are many excellent reasons to promote Open Access in archaeology, summarized in this recent issue of World Archaeology dedicated to the subject. But the Swartz case helps to highlight another. Professional society reluctance (in the case of the SAA) or outright opposition against Open Access (AIA, AAA) puts many researchers at risk. Many researchers, particularly our colleagues in public, CRM, and contract archaeology or our colleagues struggling as adjunct faculty, either totally lack or regularly lose affiliations with institutions that subscribe to pay-wall resources like JSTOR. Many of these people beg logins from their friends and colleagues lucky enough to have access. Similarly, file-sharing of copyright protected articles is routine. Email lists and other networks regularly see circulation of papers, all under legally dubious circumstances. Essentially, we have a (nearly?) criminalized underclass of researchers who bend and break rules in order to participate in their professional community. It is a perverse travesty that we’ve relegated essential professional communications to an quasi-legal/illegal underground, when we’re supposedly a community dedicated to advancing the public good through the creation of knowledge about the past.

What I would add to this is around the issue of societies and their reluctance/outright opposition to Open Access. I was at the Society of Historical Archaeology’s conference last week and in a panel discussion the issue of access to resources was brought up. Again, the time worn excuse that “we can’t go open access because then no one would join our society was used”. What I then said was, “well, have you polled your members to actually see why they join your society? The SAS polled theirs and found only a small percentage joined because of the journal. Making theirs open access with a rolling wall has no effect on membership (PS SHA make’s their journal open access as well with a  5 year rolling wall).”

What I wanted to say (and what did say later in a heated discussion about it) was, “Are you a fucking society trying to better mankind or fucking publisher in it for profit????” While societies do many great things I am starting to get real tired of them protecting the high salaries of their employees at the expense  of the rest of us, when, unlike a for-profit company, they are suppose to be helping us.

Edit Clarification – My original words were not meant as full blown criticism of the SHA. I am very happy with their progress policy towards open access. I am merely using the conversation at the conference to illustrate a general tread I find in conversations about open access e.g. “we can’t go open access because then no one would join our society”. It is a conversation I have often and it simply happen to be the most recent one. It was also the first time, not in the panel (after), that I said such blunt thoughts. Again, all used as a literary device and not meant to imply a great hatred of the SHA.

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