Academic Work Should Be Distributed For Free

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Tim Lee has an item on the Aaron Swartz arrest that strikes me as a bit wrongheadedly concern trolly, fretting that “the more lasting cost of Aaron’s actions will likely be to the reputation of the open access movement.”

This I doubt. Most likely, the lasting benefit of his actions will be to elevate the salience of the underlying issue on which Lee, Swartz, and I are all in agreement. And here’s the issue. Right now in academic publishing, what you have is basically a lot of donor- and government-financed nonprofit organizations taking outputs with near-zero distribution costs (electronic journal archives) and selling them to each other. For any one institution, this kind of makes sense. A publisher doesn’t want to give up his fees, which are valuable in meeting the costs of producing scholarship. But on net, it’s a mix of pointless and pernicious. Sale of access to journals helps finance scholarship, but it also raises the cost of scholarship. If everything was distributed for free, the whole exact same enterprise could be undertaken with no net financial loss. But there would be huge potential gains. A precocious 17 year-old could have free access to scholarship. So could a researcher living and working in a poor country. Or even an earnest political reporter who’s working on an issue and curious about what political science has to say about it. When I, personally, come across an article I’d like to read but can’t get free access to, my standard practice is to tweet about it and then someone affiliated with a university sends it to me. That’s good for me and, I think, good for the world. But there’s no reason curious people should need to amass thousands of twitter followers before they’re able to gain access to information that’s been produced by non-profit institutions that are supposed to be serving the public interest.

Both governments and private donors expend a good deal of funds on subsidizing the production of scholarly knowledge. That’s an excellent idea. Increasing the overall stock of human knowledge is important. But for most of the same reasons that producing scholarship is important, making it available is also important. Open access is important, and I’m glad to see people fighting for it.