Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Bringing Down the Ivory Tower

The suicide of the young RSS pioneer and social visionary Aaron Swartz has spawned a great deal of commentary about the vision and passion of this truly remarkable man.  (See, most recently, the essay by Columbia U. prof Timothy Wu at The New Yorker.)  While no one can truly know why Swartz decided to take his own life, it stands to reason that he was impelled by the stress of the legal prosecution against him for his "criminal" act of stealthily downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR that he then intended to make freely available to the general public.  His overzealous prosecutor (some might characterize her as a persecutor) was threatening a sentence of 30 years imprisonment.  Wu makes the point that the proposed punishment surely exceeded the actual gravity of the "crime."

But Wu's essay also begs the question: Why not make published academic and scientific research available, legally and for free, to the general public?  Many major think-tanks already make reports by their experts available to the public via free download from their websites.  And as a scholar of ancient Middle Eastern history and cultures, I am increasingly grateful to the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute, which has not only made all of its scholarly publications of the last almost 100 years available for free download, but also does the same for scholarly articles emanating from special symposia and workshops it hosts on various topics.   

Let's bear in mind that, in most instances, scholarly and scientific research - and ultimately the articles and books it engenders - is to some extent funded by federal and state tax dollars paid in by Americans who ought to feel that they have some right to be able to access that research - which, again, they helped pay for.

This issue also has some bearing on a question that has been receiving (in The Chronicle of Higher Education, for example) lots of attention in recent years: How much should academics involve themselves in contributing to debates on political and social issues and policy?  There seems to be a growing feeling that such highly trained and often exceptionally well-informed members of the body politic ought to be willing - and encouraged - to engage in those debates.  One of the most encouraging developments that I've seen (and profited from, immensely) in recent years in this regard has been the increasing involvement of scholars from elite institutions in publishing commentary and analysis at websites that focus on international relations.  The contributions of eminent scholars like Juan Cole (University of Michigan), Stephen Walt (Harvard), Fouad Ajami (Johns Hopkins), and Nathan J. Brown and Marc Lynch (George Washington University) - to name only a few - in various on-line outlets (especially at Foreign Policy and The National Interest; and in the instance of Cole, at his much celebrated blog, Informed Comment), have made accessible to a wide public the fruits of sober, well-informed expertise concerning the Middle East -- something so badly needed in this era when Fox News "experts" and hate-mongers like Rush Limbaugh and Pamela Geller have lodged themselves so deeply in the public's media consciousness.

And there's an upside here for academics as well.  For decades the general public has tended to mock them as coddled elitist pointy-heads sequestered from the "real world" within their ivory towers.  To some extent that's understandable.  Many of them (full disclosure; mea culpa) publish so much seemingly arcane stuff in often obscure journals made even more obscure by their inaccessiblity to a broader public.  And as has been noted, for example, at the recent American Historical Association convention, academics hurt their own image among the general public by too often writing theory-laden, jargon-heavy stuff that's inaccessible - and dreadfully boring - for even the better-educated members of our society.  But this isn't always the case. . . .

. . . .  Which leads me to my final point: Making scholarly academic and scientific articles available for free to the general public might well help knock down those ivory towers, or at least lower the drawbridge across the moat that has so long separated academics from the general public. 

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