A great deal has been written about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, so much that I considered remaining a reader and observer without offering comment.  But the Swartz case has me thinking again about access to academic research. Not one academic author of those articles was negatively impacted by Swartz’s act (downloading millions of scholarly articles from JSTOR with the intent of posting them online for free) – the more easily accessible the article, the more likely it is to be read and cited…and that is why we write articles.  It seems to me that most people don’t understand the fundamental absurdity of copyright in academic publishing.

I quote from one transfer-of-copyright document I recently had to sign:

In order to ensure both the widest dissemination and protection of material published in our journal, we ask Authors to transfer to [Journal Name] the rights of copyright in the articles they contribute. This enables our publisher, on behalf of [Journal Name] to ensure protection against infringement.

The whole point of publication is to get people to read and use my ideas – the very idea of infringement is pretty vague here.  I do not receive a cent for any academic article I publish, so infringement won’t affect my income. Anyone who plagiarizes me and gets caught will lose his or her career – I don’t need copyright for that. So there is no reason for me to sign this document. But what the document leaves vague is the fact this is not a voluntary transfer – the journal will not publish an article without such an agreement, and without publications the typical academic will have a pretty short career.  In short, the average academic is forced to sign away their rights to their work if they want to have a career (no publications means no tenure).  I don’t care about my rights, honestly, except when my work then ends up behind a paywall, downloadable at $30 a pop, nobody who needs to access it (i.e. colleagues in the Global South, or even colleagues at most development donors) can access it. Somebody is making a lot of money of my work and the work of my colleagues (see this article too), but it isn’t me.

However, there does seem to be an out here, at least for employees of state institutions, or those whose research is funded is funded under a federal contract.  From the same agreement I just quoted:

I hereby assign to [Journal Name] the copyright in the above specified manuscript (government authors not transferring copyright hereby assign a non-exclusive license to publish)… [my emphasis]

While I am sure this is not how it was intended when written (it is a clause to allow federal employees to publish publicly-funded research), I wonder if those of us either employed by a public entity, either directly or under a contract, can invoke that status to shift our copyright transfers into “non-exclusive licenses to publish.”  This would remove the copyright infringement argument used against Swartz, thus making it easier to pull articles from behind paywalls into the public sphere.  In short, we need to stop transferring copyright to for-profit entities any way we can…but this needs to happen in a manner that doesn’t blow up everyone’s careers.  Until the senior faculty in each discipline decide to intervene and shift emphasis to low cost, open-access journals, this could be a useful first step.  And low cost can be done – see Simon Batterbury’s comment about the Journal of Political Ecology on the post in the last hyperlink.

In short, academics need to step up and start resisting an academic publishing machine that makes serious money off of our job requirements, but provides little in return.  If we do so, perhaps we won’t need folks like Aaron Swartz to liberate our work – we can do it ourselves.