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Papers from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society

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Jul 21st, 2011
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  1. This essay originally appeared at The Pirate Bay as the description for the torrent of documents. You can see this message and the torrent here:
  3. ------
  5. This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling
  6. 33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
  7. and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most
  8. have previously only been made available at high prices through
  9. paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.
  11. Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19
  12. USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as
  13. cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article
  14. at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
  16. Also included is the basic factual metadata allowing you to
  17. locate works by title, author, or publication date, and a
  18. checksum file to allow you to check for corruption.
  20. I've had these files for a long time, but I've been afraid that if I
  21. published them I would be subject to unjust legal harassment by those who
  22. profit from controlling access to these works.
  24. I now feel that I've been making the wrong decision.
  26. On July 19th 2011, Aaron Swartz was criminally charged by the US Attorney
  27. General's office for, effectively, downloading too many academic papers
  28. from JSTOR.
  30. Academic publishing is an odd system -- the authors are not paid for their
  31. writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they're just more unpaid academics),
  32. and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the
  33. authors must even pay the publishers.
  35. And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously
  36. expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access
  37. fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals,
  38. but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.
  40. As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little
  41. significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The
  42. "publish or perish" pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly
  43. weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.
  45. Those with the most power to change the system--the long-tenured luminary
  46. scholars whose works give legitimacy and prestige to the journals, rather
  47. than the other way around--are the least impacted by its failures. They
  48. are supported by institutions who invisibly provide access to all of the
  49. resources they need. And as the journals depend on them, they may ask
  50. for alterations to the standard contract without risking their career on
  51. the loss of a publication offer. Many don't even realize the extent to
  52. which academic work is inaccessible to the general public, nor do they
  53. realize what sort of work is being done outside universities that would
  54. benefit by it.
  56. Large publishers are now able to purchase the political clout needed
  57. to abuse the narrow commercial scope of copyright protection, extending
  58. it to completely inapplicable areas: slavish reproductions of historic
  59. documents and art, for example, and exploiting the labors of unpaid
  60. scientists. They're even able to make the taxpayers pay for their
  61. attacks on free society by pursuing criminal prosecution (copyright has
  62. classically been a civil matter) and by burdening public institutions
  63. with outrageous subscription fees.
  65. Copyright is a legal fiction representing a narrow compromise: we give
  66. up some of our natural right to exchange information in exchange for
  67. creating an economic incentive to author, so that we may all enjoy more
  68. works. When publishers abuse the system to prop up their existence,
  69. when they misrepresent the extent of copyright coverage, when they use
  70. threats of frivolous litigation to suppress the dissemination of publicly
  71. owned works, they are stealing from everyone else.
  73. Several years ago I came into possession, through rather boring and
  74. lawful means, of a large collection of JSTOR documents.
  76. These particular documents are the historic back archives of the
  77. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society -- a prestigious scientific
  78. journal with a history extending back to the 1600s.
  80. The portion of the collection included in this archive, ones published
  81. prior to 1923 and therefore obviously in the public domain, total some
  82. 18,592 papers and 33 gigabytes of data.
  84. The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind,
  85. and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available
  86. freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each--for one month's
  87. viewing, by one person, on one computer. It's a steal. From you.
  89. When I received these documents I had grand plans of uploading them to
  90. Wikipedia's sister site for reference works, Wikisource -- where they
  91. could be tightly interlinked with Wikipedia, providing interesting
  92. historical context to the encyclopedia articles. For example, Uranus
  93. was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel; why not take a look at
  94. the paper where he originally disclosed his discovery? (Or one of the
  95. several follow on publications about its satellites, or the dozens of
  96. other papers he authored?)
  98. But I soon found the reality of the situation to be less than appealing:
  99. publishing the documents freely was likely to bring frivolous litigation
  100. from the publishers.
  102. As in many other cases, I could expect them to claim that their slavish
  103. reproduction -- scanning the documents -- created a new copyright
  104. interest. Or that distributing the documents complete with the trivial
  105. watermarks they added constituted unlawful copying of that mark. They
  106. might even pursue strawman criminal charges claiming that whoever obtained
  107. the files must have violated some kind of anti-hacking laws.
  109. In my discreet inquiry, I was unable to find anyone willing to cover
  110. the potentially unbounded legal costs I risked, even though the only
  111. unlawful action here is the fraudulent misuse of copyright by JSTOR and
  112. the Royal Society to withhold access from the public to that which is
  113. legally and morally everyone's property.
  115. In the meantime, and to great fanfare as part of their 350th anniversary,
  116. the RSOL opened up "free" access to their historic archives -- but "free"
  117. only meant "with many odious terms", and access was limited to about
  118. 100 articles.
  120. All too often journals, galleries, and museums are becoming not
  121. disseminators of knowledge -- as their lofty mission statements
  122. suggest -- but censors of knowledge, because censoring is the one thing
  123. they do better than the Internet does. Stewardship and curation are
  124. valuable functions, but their value is negative when there is only one
  125. steward and one curator, whose judgment reigns supreme as the final word
  126. on what everyone else sees and knows. If their recommendations have value
  127. they can be heeded without the coercive abuse of copyright to silence
  128. competition.
  130. The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific
  131. inquiry. More than in any other area, the application of restrictive
  132. copyright is inappropriate for academic works: there is no sticky question
  133. of how to pay authors or reviewers, as the publishers are already not
  134. paying them. And unlike 'mere' works of entertainment, liberal access
  135. to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued
  136. survival may even depend on it.
  138. If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous
  139. industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding,
  140. then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified -- it will be one
  141. less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent
  142. lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers
  143. a crime.
  145. I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed
  146. out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would
  147. probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous
  148. charges. This didn't sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe
  149. that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.
  151. I'm interested in hearing about any enjoyable discoveries or even useful
  152. applications which come of this archive.
  154. - ----
  155. Greg Maxwell - July 20th 2011
  156. Bitcoin: 14csFEJHk3SYbkBmajyJ3ktpsd2TmwDEBb
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