The JSTOR downloading caper: Open Access is creator give-away, not consumer rip-off

Assuming the world has not gone entirely bonkers (and the US Attorney’s Office has not contracted terminal wikileakimania), the charges against Aaron Swartz will be dropped as they have been by JSTOR once it becomes clear that he was (as I hope!) only data-mining what he downloaded, not redistributing it.

Breaking into a locked room and computer at MIT is not ethical except if something far more important and justifiable is at stake — but Swartz will be pardoned for that peccadillo too.

Yet access to retroactively scanned journal article databases is definitely not the same sort of “primal right” as access to current, born-digital articles, where the access is willingly provided by their authors, at no cost to themselves or the user.

In other words, author give-away is not the same thing as user rip-off.

Back-scanning and archiving services may well be over-charging, substantially, relative to their expenses, and that should be challenged and remedied, but the remedy is not theft.

I hope the JSTOR downloading caper will not be conflated or even associated with the legitimate worldwide efforts by researchers to give and get open access to one another’s own refereed research.

Stevan Harnad