The death by suicide of Aaron Swartz is indeed tragic, as Ian Benson writes in his January 25 “Viewpoints” column. An overly-zealous prosecutor in the U. S. Department of Justice clearly targeted him, not because he downloaded JSTOR articles in violation of JSTOR’s acceptable use policy, but because she saw him as a leader of a dangerous digital piracy movement. Although I don’t condone theft in any form, including his, my sympathies are more with him than with her. Major journal publishers have been extorting money from authors, libraries, and the public for years. They are the real bandits, but their monopoly is beginning to crack. A federal law now requires scholarly articles in the sciences that were based on federally-funded research to be made publicly accessible in a timely manner, without charge, over the Internet. There’s no excuse for commercial companies to make huge profits for publishing work they didn’t do and in many cases didn’t pay for.
But that’s not who JSTOR is. JSTOR was started in 1995 by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, a non-profit organization, to benefit scholars by making available in digital form older scholarly journal articles that no commercial publisher would ever digitize, because they would never make a profit. Mellon funded JSTOR by selling memberships to college and university libraries. The College of Wooster was a charter member. These institutions are now the virtual owners of JSTOR, and their main concern is still to make important research, especially older research, accessible in digital form to colleges and university researchers, at no cost to them as individuals, but in a way that’s fiscally sustainable for JSTOR. (JSTOR now also sells individual articles to those who are not affiliated with colleges or universities.) A project such as JSTOR costs a lot, even though no one is making a profit from it, and someone has to pay the cost in order for the project to continue. If all JSTOR’s articles became freely accessible to everyone with a computer, no college or university would buy into it anymore, and future digitization would become unsustainable. Aaron Swartz’s activities might have threatened JSTOR’s sustainability, but JSTOR declined to prosecute him. They just wanted to work with MIT to get him to stop. Now JSTOR and MIT are being unfairly labeled as bad guys.
I think it’s unfortunate that Aaron Swartz chose JSTOR, which is one of the genuine good guys of digital publishing, as his downloading target and used another of the good guys, MIT, to get access. It’s even more unfortunate that a misguided prosecutor decided to make it into a federal case, instead of just letting JSTOR and MIT handle it. And it’s terribly sad that Aaron Swartz took his own life as a result.
Damon D. Hickey, PhD
Director of Libraries, emeritus