Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Friday, October 4, 2013

Aaron Swartz and MIT

I have one one thing to say about this statement from a MIT professor about the Aaron Swartz tragedy, and that’s that the piece doesn’t say anything. It’s supposed to point the way beyond the big report on how MIT dealt with Swartz, but it doesn’t. It just cycles through some typically vacuous boilerplate administrative prose: We need to “review our practices,” we “were not intellectually engaged,”“ we might have a responsibility to help [our students] grapple with the reality of that power.” what power, you ask? Um, let’s see: “The young people we work with are so extraordinary, and are so empowered by their time here.” That power. Or empowerment. Or whatever.

I bet there have been some really fascinating discussions going on at MIT since Swartz’s death, because the legal and ethical issues raised by (a) his actions and (b) his prosecution are manifold. I want to understand those issues better, and to see how major universities are going to respond to them in practice. Will they try to close down their networks to make access more difficult? Will they accept the legal aggressiveness of entities like JSTOR, or will they try to moderate them? What if powerful institutions, especially those that sponsor influential academic journals, were to refuse to cooperate with the JSTOR subscription model and sought other avenues for funding?

As I say, I bet the conversations at MIT on these matters are fascinating — though maybe not. The one really interesting point in the statement is this:

In reviewing the record for the report, I was struck by how little attention the MIT community paid to the Swartz case, at least before the suicide. The Tech carried regular news items on the arrest and the court proceedings. Yet in the two years of the prosecution, there was not one opinion piece, and not one letter to the editor. The Aaron Swartz case offers a textbook example of the issues of openness and intellectual property on the Internet—the kinds of issues for which people traditionally look to MIT for intellectual leadership. But when those issues erupted in our midst, we didn’t recognize them, and we were not intellectually engaged. Why not?

It is possible, of course, that the community was “intellectually engaged” — just not in public. As Aaron Swartz discovered to his cost, in these matters people and institutions can be quite fierce in protecting their interests. Were faculty and administration at MIT disengaged? Or just wary about going on the record?

In any case, I am sure in the aftermath of Swartz’s suicide that the university’s lawyers have gone over every public statement from MIT employees, including this one, to make sure that they are so anodyne that they might as well not have been written at all.


  • The JSTOR thing is one of those issues where I find broad solidarity in rejecting the current model, but not much in the way of a newer, better model. I talk to academics about this all the time, and I literally have not met anyone who's opposed in principle to the idea of free and open access.

    The problem is that people tend to underestimate the amount of money and effort it takes to create and host digital archives like those of JSTOR. So we do need to find funding somewhere. I'm convinced that universities could pony up a lot less money to maintain the same infrastructure if we cut out the bullies. But we've got to come up with an actual plan, and like any major change of this type, it won't come without pain.

    That said, even as a congenital pessimist, I feel confident that we'll see a broad movement to free and open access of researched articles in my lifetime.

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