The suicide of Aaron Swartz, the activist committed to making scholarly research accessible to everyone, has renewed debate about the ethics of academic publishing. Under the current system, academic research is housed in scholarly databases, which charge as much as $50 per article to those without a university affiliation.Sobre isso, ver também este artigo de George Moonbiot, "Academic publishers make Murdoch look like a socialist", no Comment is Free / The Guardian.
The only people who profit from this system are academic publishers. Scholars receive no money from the sale of their articles, and are marginalized by a public who cannot afford to read their work. Ordinary people are denied access to information and prohibited from engaging in scholarly debate.
Academic paywalls are often presented as a moral or financial issue. How can one justify profiting off unpaid labour while denying the public access to research frequently funded through taxpayer dollars? But paywalls also have broader political consequences. Whether or not an article is accessible affects more than just the author or reader. It affects anyone who could potentially benefit from scholarly insight, information or expertise – that is, everyone.
The impact of the paywall is most significant in places where censorship and propaganda reign. When information is power, the paywall privileges the powerful. Dictatorships are the paywall’s unwitting beneficiary. (...)
In 2006, I wrote an article proving that the government of Uzbekistan had fabricated a terrorist group in order to justify shooting hundreds of Uzbek civilians gathered at a protest in the city of Andijon. Like all peer-reviewed academic articles, “Inventing Akromiya: The Role of Uzbek Propagandists in the Andijon Massacre” was published in a journal and sequestered from public view. In 2008, I published the article on http://www.academia.edu/, a website where scholars can upload their works as pdfs on individual homepages. This had consequences beyond what I had anticipated. (...)
Over the next few years, many Uzbeks linked to the “Akromiya” controversy began petitioning for political asylum. Because they had been labeled Islamic terrorists by the Uzbek government, they faced an uphill battle in the Western legal system. My academic article became a piece of evidence in many of these asylum cases, including this one from the United Nations Refugee Agency, which cites the copy available at academia.edu. Because I made my work open, it helped keep innocent people from being deported to a country where they would be jailed or killed. (...)
After the suicide of Aaron Swartz, many academics published their papers online and linked to them on Twitter under the hashtag #pdftribute. They did this to honour Swartz’s fight to make information available to more than the academic elite. Critics have argued that this action is essentially meaningless, as it fails to address the career incentive of the professoriate, whose ability to advance professionally rests on their willingness to publish in journals inaccessible to the public.
This is a valid point – for Western academics. For the rest of the world, it is irrelevant. When an activist needs information about the political conditions of her country, she should be able to read it. When a lawyer needs ammunition against a corrupt regime, she should be able to find it. When a journalist is struggling to cover a foreign conflict, she should have access to research on that country.
One could argue that non-academics sources suffice, but that is not necessarily the case. The specialisation that makes academic work seem obscure or boring to a general audience is also what makes it uniquely valuable. Academics cover topics in depth that few cover at all. Unfortunately, their expertise is shielded from the people who need it most.