Twenty six year old Aaron Swartz took his own life on January 11, 2013. He did so after facing the possibility of spending 35 years in jail for what could be characterized as the digital equivalent of borrowing too many library books at one time(1). I never met Aaron, read of his exploits, and first learned of his prodigious talents and voracious curiosity via Dave Winer during a period where I followed Dave’s work closely and used several of his programming and web content tools.
I believe it is time that we in academia rethink our role in a system so perveted that it turned into a vendetta that led an intelligent and thoughtful young man to believe he had no choice but to end his own life. In our pursuit of tenure, promotion, and a path to climb the ladder we are privileging ourselves and our ambitions over the knowledge we create, and contributing to this outdated system.
Since I’ve entered the field of ethnomusicology, I’ve often thought that getting an article published in Ethnomusicology or Yearbook of Traditional Music would be a huge accomplishment and contribute to my career goals. I’m rethinking this, as long as they are part of this system. The demonization of Aaron Swartz all started with JSTOR, and while it seems they tried to extract themselves from the witchhunt, it is still complicit.
We also bear the cost of our own choices. My current institution, University of Hawai’i Maui College, does not have access to JSTOR because they say “we can’t afford it.” I’m sure other institutions are in similar circumstances. This prevents me from teaching the material I would like to present to my students. Why would I want to create knowledge and put it in a repository that my own students lack access to? I realize that publishers need to make money to print dead tree-based publications, but there are other options available today. If these formats are not recognized by our instutions as credible vehicles for validating our value and worth, it is because we allow them to do so.
I’m hoping that the leaders of our organizations will also rethink their participation in the status quo and create a system that rewards open creativity and eliminates punitive and vindictive actions like these. I call on the members and leaders of the Society of Ethnomusicology and the International Council of Traditional Music to explore options that will extract us from this archaic system and create one that both rewards our work and creativity but prevents our work from being the justification for this kind of abuse.
1) you have to imagine a library where you could borrow every book, but the library still had an infinite number copies of every book still available to others.