The Crime of Downloading Academic Articles

Aaron_swartz-660x440 Thanks to Henry, I've just learned that Aaron Swartz has been arrested for hacking into JSTOR and downloading a ton of articles. According to Wired, if convicted, Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

The grand jury indictment accuses Swartz of evading MIT’s attempts to kick his laptop off the network while downloading more than four million documents from JSTOR, a non-for-profit company that provides searchable, digitized copies of academic journals. The scraping, which took place from September 2010 to January 2011 via MIT’s network, was invasive enough to bring down JSTOR’s servers on several occasions.

Swartz is a co-founder of Reddit and is 24 years old. 

Henry writes in the comment section, 

There is a lot of messy debate here that is ready to explode. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the reasons that JSTOR didn’t want to go ahead with this was precisely because it feared having a cause celebre, with an articulate, intellectually attractive and selfless defendant, explode out of it. And I confidently predict that there is going to be one very unhappy prosecutor who has no idea of the major political shitstorm that she is kicking up by doing this. Aaron is very rightly beloved by a whole lot of people – he’s spent the last several years providing unpaid help for a variety of good causes.

I have to think that one or two of the authors whose papers were downloaded are secretly happy that someone read their papers. 


14 thoughts on “The Crime of Downloading Academic Articles

  1. This is a fascinating case. As a librarian, I certainly don’t want him to go to jail at all for this. However, his actions caused all of MIT to lose access to JSTOR for months. This is significant to academics, like lets say you had a journal article due (luckily, it wasn’t a lot of medical information…). We don’t know if he actually bothered to ask JSTOR for the data (they have a program to help academics get data on their corpus). Of course that would be lame to do for someone like him. I wish he had hacked Elsevier or another supplier of academic research that is actually a real problem. JSTOR is actually one of the good guys in the general scheme of things. Also, I don’t want to have to watch out for jerks getting into my server closets! Hard to condone that behavior. (This is all assuming what the indictment said is what happened). Its interesting to note JSTOR has made a statement but MIT has not. Wonder what MIT thinks. I wonder why he didn’t use Harvard’s network.
    And by the way, I totally agree that academic publishing is messed up and some of the journals that JSTOR presents are part of the problem. Scholarly societies need to stop trying to make money off their journals. At the same time, Swartz wasn’t going to actually solve that problem through his actions, and they weren’t totally harmless for a variety of reasons. I am a big supporter of open access publishing.
    In the end, this just may scare people like this, which would not be all bad. I totally support his ultimate goals, but the way he did this only hurts his allies…not really the corporate sponsors of academic research, which seems to be the ultimate issue. A lot of librarians totally agree with him. We just don’t want him messing it up for our other patrons while we get some of the older editors of famous journals to get off their high horse and stop subsidizing the ACS.
    Luckily, it seems unlikely he’ll actually get convicted or that it will stand up in court. Its too bad he gave the government such a good opening. now he’ll be distracted by this silly case and not actually doing his real work.

  2. I don’t really know all the history, but medical journals are shifting to charging the author or they had always been charging but moved to greater reliance on these fees when the feds said you had to have open access on the web if you used government funding. I googled and see that these fees are often several thousand dollars. That has its own problems as, even though they say they’ll waive the fees if needed, that’s got to be a huge barrier to unfunded research. Given that much political science research has no budget I don’t know if the medical research model will translate.
    I can also see problems with sponsored research as the sponsor might not want to pay for the publication of negative studies and the investigators will face another barrier.

  3. My understanding was that the Physics Review has been asking you to pay for publication for a long time now. I don’t think the fee was anywhere near several thousand dollars (I hope).
    I’m reaaaaaally hoping this doesn’t make anything harder for JSTOR to deal with. Another reason they probably didn’t want the publicity–it’s not like they own the content they’re presenting.

  4. Comment of the day on CT:
    Information wants to be free, as in beer, but stay the hell outta the wiring closet.
    It’s amusing to note all the parallels to James O’Keefe.

  5. My sympathy fades quite a bit when you talk about him breaking into the MIT computers, physically, and causing MIT researchers to be cut off from their resources for however long. If it’s only a few hours, maybe not so bad. If it’s a longer period of time, that’s some harm which I’d love to hear his supporters rationalize.
    Otherwise, I guess this means it’s fair game for me to get into whatever hardware access I can approach in true 19th century tycoon fashion and copy whatever I want at whatever cost to other people using the system, no?

  6. I don’t think the fee was anywhere near several thousand dollars (I hope).
    That’s just what I hit upon when I googled. I’d heard $500 mentioned by a young scientists pitching around for money. Maybe if you mention the support of the NIH or Pfizer, they increase multiply the fee by 500% because they got the money anyway.

  7. Agree with Jen and Janice. I don’t have an ideological problem with what he did, but the thought of losing access to JSTOR for a prolonged period of time makes me stabby. If I were an MIT student I wouldn’t be very happy about his behavior.
    I also agree with JSTOR being the wrong target. It seems like they basically compile and provide search functions to academic institutions, no? They don’t set the prices nor do they own the content, the journals do. They’re also a non profit, so I doubt they’re gouging universities either. Without JSTOR stuff wouldn’t be more affordable, it would just be less accessible.
    I’ve also heard the payment per page model for physics journals from a committee member. I don’t remember what he said, but it sounded like for top journals it could work out to be over a $1000 depending on the length. Of course, those publishing costs are something researchers budget in to grants. Like MH I can’t imagine that model working in social sciences, because it’s not like we’re picking up multi-million dollar defense grants, nor will the patents for our research repay the costs.

  8. JSTOR did a great service be digitizing lots of old academic journals. But that was never a for-profit venture, was it? I thought it was some kind of non-profit consortium, which does a raise a question about why it isn’t more widely available already. Yes, we’d all love to have those old journals widely available. At least I would. I can imagine having three or four times the readership for my own obscure pieces–catapulating my fame from, say, one reader to three or four!!

  9. I thought it was some kind of non-profit consortium, which does a raise a question about why it isn’t more widely available already.
    Because it does cost some (I wish I remember the figures from when the library I used to work at joined, since I remember the conversations), and because they don’t own the content. It’s not freely available–which is why lots of journals are only partially available. And when I use my current university’s aggregated search, I can get Elsevier and JSTOR results for the same article. (Sometimes five databases, when something’s on PubMed and ProQuest and JSTOR and the publisher’s site.) I don’t know how the finances look from JSTOR’s end, and it probably varies a lot journal to journal.
    It’s amusing to note all the parallels to James O’Keefe.
    The one that strikes me the most is My god they’re just wee baaaaaaabies! (Which is to say that I’m old, not that they’re whining, mind.)

  10. In my opinion, he comes across as a smug punk. Sorry. He’ll probably be convicted, should it come to trial. (IMHO, IANAL.)

  11. if convicted, Swartz faces up to 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine
    I sort of wish Congress would write some punishments that didn’t make them sound like a combination of Dr. Evil and a stressed parent trying to control a 14 year old who keeps taking the car at night.

  12. A million dollars actually sounds pretty mild for all the inconvenience and delay caused, but perhaps that should be saved for a civil suit?
    The 35 years is way out of line.

  13. I’m way late, but it’s worth noting that Swartz is not actually a co-founder of Reddit, although he has made that claim. He is the co-founder of Infogami, which Reddit later acquired. This isn’t the onlyfalse claim he’s made, either. While, like most of the other commenters, I’m a big OA advocate, the movement does not need bull-headed assclowns like Swartz.

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