Science Progress | Where science, technology, and progressive policy meet

Working Toward a More Fitting Tribute to Aaron Swartz than JSTOR’s Register & Read

Aaron Swartz SOURCE: Creative Commons A photo-shopped image of Aaron Swartz illustrates his loyal following. Swartz, 26, was co-creator of a number of internet platforms, including Reddit and the RSS protocol, and was a founder of the freedom of information activist group Demand Progress.

Just two days before internet folk hero Aaron Swartz took his own life, online journal archive JSTOR announced an expansion of its free-access “Register & Read” program, from 76 publishers to over 700. The move is a crack in the for-profit academic publishing stronghold’s armor, but not the paywall-demolishing revolution of the open-access movement’s dreams.

Swartz, 26, was a prominent activist in that open-access movement, advocating that academic research funded by taxpayers should be made available to the taxpayers for free online. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing over 30 years in prison for allegedly downloading nearly 5 million academic documents from JSTOR in what is thought to have been the first step in a radical plan to liberate the data. There is widespread speculation that the severity of the punishments he faced may have been a factor in his decision to take his life.

The Register & Read program allows anyone to read up to three articles every two weeks online from selected offerings in exchange for some personal information, such as occupation and institutional affiliation. JSTOR then shares that information with publishers as a thank you for offering their journals through the program. Downloads and the full online catalogue remain only available to associated library patrons and subscription purchasers. And it’s very expensive: American academic libraries spent about $1 billion on electronic access to serial subscriptions in 2008 and prices have just risen since.

And more often than not, the research those subscriptions guard was funded by taxpayers. Academic institutions performed 53 percent of total basic research and 36 percent of all research funded by the U.S. government in 2009. And in academic publishing, not only are authors rarely compensated, they’re frequently charged by publishers for the privilege of being published. Yet, despite the public investment in much of the research most publishers are for-profit—with the largest, Elsevier, making US $1.1 billion in profits in 2011, a profit margin of around 35 percent.

If this whole system seems a little unbalanced or unfair to you, you’re not alone. Discontent about the academic publishing system has led to a flourishing open-access movement in university circles, with Ivy League schools, such as Harvard University, and public institutions, such as the University of Kansas, leading the way. In his own right, Swartz, promoted policies to provide unrestricted access to peer-reviewed research online through advocacy and civil disobedience. By the end of 2012 the number of open-access journals increased by 1,133, to more than 8,461, and the number of online repositories allowing public access to university research grew by 449, to more than 3,000 worldwide.

But instead of working with this flourishing movement, academic publishers have increased the price of online journal subscriptions to levels libraries increasingly cannot afford. In April 2012 the Harvard Faculty Council released a statement on the crisis’ impact on their library system:

“We write to communicate an untenable situation facing the Harvard Library. Many large journal publishers have made the scholarly communication environment fiscally unsustainable and academically restrictive. This situation is exacerbated by efforts of certain publishers (called “providers”) to acquire, bundle, and increase the pricing on journals.

Harvard’s annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75 million. In 2010, the comparable amount accounted for more than 20 percent of all periodical subscription costs and just under 10 percent of all collection costs for everything the Library acquires. Some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year, others in the tens of thousands. Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145 percent over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. These journals therefore claim an ever-increasing share of our overall collection budget. Even though scholarly output continues to grow and publishing can be expensive, profit margins of 35 percent and more suggest that the prices we must pay do not solely result from an increasing supply of new articles.

The Library has never received anything close to full reimbursement for these expenditures from overhead collected by the University on grant and research funds.”

Harvard’s situation is far from unique. The University of California San Francisco Library spends 85 percent of their collection budget on journal subscriptions—yet “[d]espite cancelling the print component of more than 100 journal subscriptions in 2012 to keep up with a budget reduction, [their] costs still increased by 3 percent.” Libraries are now being put in a position where they must reduce their physical acquisitions in order to stay subscribed to electronic archives—even though that means they’re investing in limited access, not building their actual collection.

There have been attempts to help resolve the crisis through legislation: The bi-partisan Federal Research Public Access Act, or FRPAA, for example, would require free online public access to most publicly funded research in the United States and strengthen the National Institutes of Health’s open-access mandate by cutting the maximum time from publish date to being available to the public in half, to six months.

But while the legislation didn’t get past committees in the 112th Congress, for-profit publishers have already taken action to smear these efforts to increase access to academic publishing. In the spring of 2012, the president and CEO of the Association of American Publishers ignored the public interest when he claimed: “FRPAA is little more than an attempt at intellectual eminent domain, but without fair compensation to authors and publishers.”

To clarify, that is a representative of a sector in the publishing industry that actually charges many authors to publish their work, and charges universities for access to the finished product, while claiming to represent the best interests of both. Meanwhile, in memorial of Aaron Swartz, academic authors across the world are uploading copies of their own copyrighted material to share online.

Given JSTOR’s nonprofit status, there is perhaps hope that the expansion of the Register & Read program is just a first step in the direction of increased transparency and open-access in the future. And it is likely that Swartz’s death may harden the resolve of academics and online activists to put pressure on the publishing industry to find new and more effective ways of sharing publicly funded research with the world.

But for now JSTOR’s peace offering of access to just three articles every two weeks from a limited selection of their catalogue with reader choices tracked shows how far the industry is from addressing the real conversation our society needs to have about who should be able to access the research we all pay for.

Andrea Peterson is the Social Media and Analytics Editor at American Progress.

Comments on this article

By clicking and submitting a comment I acknowledge the Science Progress Privacy Policy and agree to the Science Progress Terms of Use. I understand that my comments are also being governed by Facebook's Terms of Use and Privacy Policy.