A couple of days ago, the online library JSTOR announced that they are opening part of their archives and making them available for free. Over 1,200 journals will now be available to anyone who signs up for a JSTOR account. Usually, unless you are affiliated with a university library, most JSTOR content is not freely available to the public. Most public libraries can’t afford to pay for a JSTOR account, so their archives have been notoriously unavailable to lay people. While this is a nice gesture, the access is still somewhat limited: once you sign up for an account, you can read “up to three articles for free every two weeks.”
Many people feel that all publicly funded research should be freely available to…the public. Critics argue that commercial entities have made huge profits on the results of research funded by taxpayers. The United Kingdom seems to be a pioneer in making taxpayer-funded research freely available, thanks in large part to the work of Dame Janet Fitch. In July of last year, the British government accepted her recommendations.
The U.S. is still arguing with itself about how to approach the issue, and many people are not optimistic about a resolution. But, as professor Michael B. Eisen wrote in a New York Times op-ed piece last year, “Rather than rolling back public access, Congress should move to enshrine a simple principle in United States law: if taxpayers paid for it, they own it.”
In related news, Reddit co-founder and online activist Aaron Swartz died yesterday, the result of suicide. He had battled depression for years and wrote publicly and eloquently about it on his blog. But he was also facing trial after being accused of illegally downloading millions of articles from MIT and JSTOR archives. The case was controversial, with some claiming Swartz broke no laws. I guess we’ll never know what the legal outcome would have been, but it’s a sad coincidence that his death came just days after JSTOR made their announcement.