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.
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.
"Because I made my work open, it helped keep innocent people from being deported to a country where they would be jailed or killed. "
- Sarah Kendzior
Publishing as a means to freedom
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 academia.edu, a website where scholars can upload their works as pdfs on individual homepages. This had consequences beyond what I had anticipated.
At the time my article was published, hundreds of Uzbeks had fled across the border to Kyrgyzstan, from where they were relocated as refugees to Western states. Among these Uzbeks were witnesses to the shooting in Andijon as well as people who were accused of being members of “Akromiya” – a loose collective of devout Muslim businessmen who were known for their financial acumen, charitable initiatives and profound piety, all of which the government of Uzbekistan found threatening. The men of “Akromiya” – an appellative coined by an Uzbek propagandist after alleged leader Akrom Yo’ldoshev -- bore no resemblance to the violent Islamic extremists depicted in Uzbek state literature.
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.
'Shielded from the people who need it most'
When we talk about academic research being shielded from the general public, we forget that the general public includes non-academic experts to whom such research is directly relevant – such as lawyers, doctors, journalists, policy officials, and activists. Academics love to complain about superficial reporting or uninformed policy, but their own system denies professionals the opportunity to add depth to their work. With database subscription fees running tens of thousands of dollars, even prestigious organizations cannot afford to penetrate the paywall.
I regularly receive requests for my academic articles, and I always comply – as do most of the academics I know. Contrary to popular perception, most scholars want their work to be read. But for every researcher plaintively tweeting that they need a paywalled PDF, there are many for whom tracking down barricaded knowledge seems too much trouble. Instead, they rely on what resources are available. This means that a lot of academic research, some of which could have profound political implications, is ignored.
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.
Academic's incentives vs. society's needs
Shortly after pdftribute launched, a friend asked me whether she should post her articles online. She is an assistant professor who studies an authoritarian state. She has published a number of articles in paywalled scholarly journals. For this, she will probably get tenure.
My friend spends her free time educating the world about the conditions of this country through social media. She does not hoard her data. Instead she does everything possible to make it available to anyone who needs it. This ultimately included joining #pdftribute and publishing her articles online. For this, she could potentially get in trouble.
My friend knew she had to do what was right. As a scholar of an authoritarian regime, she understands that one of the greatest weapons of dictatorships is their ability to control information. She has witnessed firsthand the importance of accurate statistics, of open sources, of censored stories told. She knows what happens when those resources are denied.
Information is power, but information is also freedom. With that freedom comes responsibility. Scholars can no longer question whether their work is relevant to a broader audience, because in the digital age, that audience is simply too broad. All scholarly work is relevant to someone – and the impact can be profound. Whether we allow that impact to be realized remains to be seen.
Sarah Kendzior is an anthropologist who recently received her PhD from Washington University in St Louis.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.