OAW 2011: Guerilla Open Access

Thanks to Aaron Swartz and Greg Maxwell, the issue of Guerilla Open Access is no longer discussed in hushed tones in libraries and hallways of big academic centers, but it has come out in the open. Now although I must own up to the fact that I am intensely supportive of both civil disobedience and open access movements, the Guerilla OA activities of Swartz et al has raked up too much muck.


I admit initially, when this issue surfaced, my unfettered support for the movement and the emotional hyperbole flying on both sides had me for a while, but eventually, I came around to my senses and realized Peter Suber was right about this (like so many other issues in the field of open access!). In his prescient post discussing the issue of guerilla OA, he has raised the debate that the arrest of Swartz stoked.

There were several breaches of law which exposed Swartz to legal action, which he was subsequently subjected to. I do not think that it is a great idea to embrace illegal methods to further the cause of OA, even under the garb of civil disobedience. The fact remains, issues like breaking and entering and illegally running programs is definitely illegal. One might be inclined to compare this to the Dandi March of Gandhi where he eventually broke the law by making salt from the sea water, which was prohibited by law, and got arrested. The two examples, though from diametrically opposed fields are, at the core of the issue, the presentation of the same principle. But, if civil disobedience leads to the breaking of laws, no matter how unjust they are, one has to bear the consequences – and then move to reform the laws. I guess this is just to prove that no one is above the law, even when it is faulty and in violation of the spirit of the greater good.


Forwarding the OA movement through actions causing copyright infringement has been strongly discouraged by Suber. I think this is a very valid argument, especially considering the fact that the closed access advocated will flaunt these examples as the rogue open access threatens to be if adopted as the gold standard for scientific publications. This would further fuel the fire of misconception that the traditional publishers, aka Big Pub, have never sought to quell: open access is in contravention to copyright laws.

Laws regarding intellectual property rights and copyrights are very complicated, and as far as the Indian scenario is concerned, my reading of the laws have not left me much wiser about where to draw the line. I am not a lawyer, nor have had any formal legal training, but growing up in a family with a couple of lawyers, some of it has brushed off on me. The fact remains, the horizon where exactly the legal ends and illegal starts is very fuzzy. The strictest interpretations would mean that even email sharing of copyrighted materials maybe construed to be illegal in a given set of circumstances. Until and unless the laws are amended to be more succinct and well-defined, the very definition of “guerilla” in guerilla open access will be subject to scrutiny.

One legal strategy is to adopt a movement to bring out paywalled material that is otherwise in the public domain. Sufficiently old publications and manuscripts, among other things, may fall in this category. A good way to progress in India regarding gaining access to these materials is by applying the Right to Information Act. Now while there are a lot of skeptics decrying the bureaucracy associated with trying to impose this law, there have been very good results in applying this law (with some political good will catalyzing the reactions) in some other fields of late.

I think Peter Suber sums it up much better than I can ever do when he says:

“there is no vigilante OA, no infringing, expropriating, or piratical OA.”  But if some OA is lawful and some is not, then we burden ourselves with the need to explain which is which and justify that which shouldn’t need justification; we further confuse well-disposed stakeholders who are already confused about copyright; and we hand the publishing lobby a propaganda gift.

The truth about open access needs to get out there.

I know I have been vocal in the support of Aaron and Greg and the others (including the likes of Graham Steel, who has his own story of guerilla advocacy to tell!) in this matter, but I do not think this new stand is in any ways contrary to what I have believed in and spoken of for so long. I strongly believe open access to be the way forwards in the future, and I think that adopting guerilla methods will not be of much assistance in the long run. The real difference can be made by civil disobedience from the ranks of the scientists and policy makers who prefer to publish in the traditional, reader-pays system if they decide to embrace open access publications over their closed access counterparts.

Open Access is stepping in its maturity now and the days ahead are filled with promise. The time is come to define what kind of a stance we have to take, one where we choose to sneak through holes and jump over fences, and live in fear of Big Pub hitting back, or one where we choose to raise in our ranks the support of a million academics pledging their work into the public domain voluntarily, thereby unshackling information for all.

5 thoughts on “OAW 2011: Guerilla Open Access

  1. In my view, the present medical publication system is unethical. It is next to impossible to practice evidence-based medicine when all the evidence is bolted up. The National Medical Library is hugely problematic at best and a complete joke at worst.

    It is even more unethical as the content of the journals are produced by authors without a fee, reviewed without a fee. Heck, the journals don’t even pay for the research. They are conveniently sitting in the middle making a profit. And with everything going online I don’t think the argument of content distribution holds much water. There is a bengali word for what the journals are doing – “Phore”.


  2. The JSTOR downloading caper: Open Access is creator give-away, not consumer rip-off

    Assuming the world has not gone entirely bonkers (and the US Attorney’s Office has not contracted terminal wikileakimania), the charges against Aaron Swartz will be dropped as they have been by JSTOR once it becomes clear that he was (as I hope!) only data-mining what he downloaded, not redistributing it.

    Breaking into a locked room and computer at MIT is not ethical except if something far more important and justifiable is at stake — but Swartz will be pardoned for that peccadillo too.

    Yet access to retroactively scanned journal article databases is definitely not the same sort of “primal right” as access to current, born-digital articles, where the access is willingly provided by their authors, at no cost to themselves or the user.

    In other words, author give-away is not the same thing as user rip-off.

    Back-scanning and archiving services may well be over-charging, substantially, relative to their expenses, and that should be challenged and remedied, but the remedy is not theft.

    I hope the JSTOR downloading caper will not be conflated or even associated with the legitimate worldwide efforts by researchers to give and get open access to one another’s own refereed research.

    Stevan Harnad


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