15 January 2013

Opening Access to AIR's Research Publications

Many of you will have heard, by now, of the death of Aaron Swartz. He was, by all accounts, a technically brilliant man passionate about not just the technical but also the social aspects of the Internet. A firm believer in openness on the Internet, his prosecution was for an act of civil disobedience toward the American intellectual property regime: mass downloading of academic research from JSTOR. Swartz' death is thus leading many to demand that the journals through which we communicate abandon paywalls and adopt open-access policies.

Count me among them: Research in Higher Education, the research journal of the Association for Institutional Research, should adopt an open access model.

On principle, academic research ought to be available to all. At the very least, academic research produced at public universities or with government grants is the product of taxpayers as much as it is of authors and editors. But the larger justification, in principle, for open access is simply that open availability of knowledge is why we publish to begin with. In institutional research the motivation to publish is often explicitly public-oriented: we started with research at our own institutions and then concluded that it might be valuable to others. Those others aren't only behind paywalls.

To be sure, if paywalls surrounding journals like Research in Higher Education lead, through market incentives to publish journals rather than circulate manuscripts privately, to access to more academic research then we might accept the compromise with principle. Academic journals solve two challenges that might make for more research: communication with fellow scholars (including archiving research) and quality control through peer review. I can't see how paywalls do this today, though. Peer review has always been free labor service to the discipline, so there is no way to argue that the market promotes their efforts; quality control comes from the editors' authority not the publishers' paywalls.

In the age of print, journals disseminated articles widely, often to libraries open to the public on some limited basis. It was reasonable that they could present a bill for such services; after all, we are not communists. Electronic distribution—certainly the dominant form of distribution and probably the preferred one for most scholars—frees research from the constraints of physical publication and distribution, however. There are of course costs for electronic distribution, but they are relatively minimal and can't justify the restrictions.

Research in Higher Education does, ostensibly, have an open access option. Springer (RHE's publisher) offers "Open Choice" which gives authors the option of retaining copyright and licensing research for publication under a Creative Commons license. That seems like a step forward; Swartz  was—as a teenager—one of the architects of the Creative Commons framework. But to exercise that privilege, the authors must pay "an open access publication fee" of, astonishingly, $3,000. This prices most authors out of the open access option. I can't help but see Open Choice as minimally compliant with grants that require open access publication. As far as true open access is concerned, Open Choice is openwashing.

Open access journals have been common in the natural sciences for more than a decade, and the Directory of Open Access Journals shows 567 open access journals in education alone. I'm sure some of these are Open Choice-like vaporware, some are ephemeral, and some lack rigor. But there are enough that AIR should be able to find an appropriate model. In fact, the only serious obstacle to moving RHE to an open model is simultaneously a very strong argument for doing so: Springer holds the copyright to articles previously published in RHE.

Swartz recognized that the old information order was crumbling. From forms of knowledge development, the intellectual property regime has turned into its fetters. We are at the cutting edge of so many opportunities to make our institutions better: accountability, evidence-driven decision-making, business intelligence, assessment. Institutional researchers share a remarkable commitment to transparency at our institutions. We need to extend that to our discipline as well.  

RHE currently operates in that old information order, the order of controlled information, of "what you don't know can't hurt you," of profiting by withholding rather than growing by collaborating. It is an order that institutional research isn't a part of. Research in Higher Education needs to change. It needs to reflect what institutional research is. It needs to be open.


I never met Aaron Swartz, and knew of him only by following distantly the JSTOR case. So I can't really say why this particular loss moved me as it has. But it has moved me.

There are many troubling facets of Swartz' suicide at 26, including prosecutorial abuse and depression. His description of the latter—"Go outside and get some fresh air or cuddle with a loved one and you don’t feel any better, only more upset at being unable to feel the joy that everyone else seems to feel"—rings so true of my own experience of it. To be sure, we need to understand, as best we can, his death and the roles of mental health, individuals, and social institutions in it.

But for those of us who have been moved by Swartz for whatever reason, more important is that we honor his life. Many have tweeted .pdf copies of their research under #pdftribute, something I'll be doing as soon as I find the files. (That probably says something about the journals I've published in.) I hope the fact that he has moved so many to push for open access to public information is some small consolation to those who loved him. Aaron Swartz mattered.

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