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A Tribute to Aaron Swartz - Post all academic articles for open public review, and end the traditional peer-review process

I did not know Aaron Swartz but I feel deep grief at his passing, and the circumstances.

I suspect that many people believe that the research of governments and academics belong in the public domain and should be available for all to review or simply access. This would eliminate the need for journals which set up an elite system that decides who can and cannot access the articles.

The idea behind the peer-review process is that others with robust knowledge (hopefully) of the material makes an assessment of the research methodology, accuracy etc etc.

In an open review process, the article would be placed on the institution's or authors' website which is designed to allow discussion. Anyone with interest can read the article and interact with the authors. The reviewers are not anonymous and their names, qualifications, knowledge of the topic will be known and available to the authors. The discussion remains public and online. There will likely be more than the traditional 3 reviewers, and the open discussion would strengthen the critical reviews.

One of the very unfair aspects of Aaron's case is that the real "thieves" are, in many cases, one or more of the listed authors who have not contributed to the articles, have plagiarized or otherwise taken credit for the work of others. The open review process might force some of the dishonesty from academic publications, while fulfilling the hope of open access.

What are your thoughts?

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    Jan 17 2013: We are one of the only countries that charge money for results of scientific research. We need to get over it. Just because scientific results are open sourced does not circumvent the peer review process. Britain does it well and so does Australia and most eastern countries. We have to let go of our greed and litigious behavior at some point. Perhaps Aaron will help us see the folly.

    "With enough of us around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge, we'll make it a thing of the past." ~ Aaron Swartz (1986-2013) RIP
    • Jan 18 2013: Well-said Linda. There was a time when the journal distribution system was necessary but that is no longer the case. There are already examples out there showing that it can be done without compromising quality. Time for us to move beyond the selfish excuses.
  • Jan 20 2013: I think TED is the wrong forum for this. Most people on TED forums do not contribute to academic publications. So, the preferences of most people here is irrelevant.

    Having said that, many fields that I have come across already have academics who have been pushing for open access for quite a few years now, and have already achieved a good deal of success at it. See or for recent examples.

    The peer review process for many open journals is (IMHO) moslty good enough. However, there are still some people in academia who prefer an even more open review process:

    There is already a trend towards more openness, and I don't see Aaron's death making much difference to it. However, Aaron's death has shaken the convictions of the people actually responsible for his despair - the agencies of government that made this particular kind of prosecutorial overreach possible. "Shaken the convictions"? Well... I think they are spineless worms, and do not have real convictions, other than getting their next promotion. Let me rephrase that. Aaron's death has resulted in SOME of them worrying about what kind of crap they can get away with next time.
    • Jan 20 2013: Hello John, Thank you for your input and the links. I think that every opportunity to spread the idea of open, publishing should be seized. To my knowledge there are a fair number of academics, professionals and learned people on this forum, though the number of people who comment are far fewer than those who read the posts.

      I hope you are wrong about Aaron's passing not making much of a difference. I hope it causes people to think about and act on what he was trying to accomplish. We are a reactive society and the reaction typically tends to be short-lived, but one can only hope that the impetus to do something is strong enough for greater steps to be taken. Thanks again.
      • Jan 21 2013: Articles such as reaffirm my cynicism.

        begin quote >>
        Ortiz’s spokeswoman, Christina DiIorio-Sterling, said last night the Swartz case won’t affect the office’s handling of other cases. “Absolutely not,” she said. “We thought the case was reasonably handled and we would not have done things differently.

        “We’re going to continue doing the work of the office and of following our mission.”
        • Jan 21 2013: Hi John, this does not surprise me. When people pursue a selfish goal, there is total disregard for all else, and no thought given to the humanity involved. It is very sad. This does not mean that we should not strive for open/self publishing. The technology is available but it requires the will of academics and the persistence of everyone. Thanks for the follow-up.
      • Jan 22 2013: I'm not pessimistic about open publishing at all. That's one thing I'm very optimistic about. This is an Idea Whose Time Has Come®.

        These big publishers (Elsevier, Nature, Science, IEEE, Springer, Wiley) became big because publishing used to cost a lot of money, quite apart from the actual paper and print costs, there was the cost of actually running the business. With the internet, collaboration becomes a lot easier, and some academics realize that they, with a few volunteers, can actually run a journal in their spare time. If you start googling on this, there won't be an end to it.

        Interestingly, my own field, which shall go unnamed, has taken a completely open approach to the whole thing. Anyone can download ALL the papers published in the last 30 years or so. Not only that, when researchers write software, it is typically with an open-source license.
        • Jan 23 2013: Thanks John. You are quite right that there are moves in the right direction. There are a handful of journals that are open for full downloads and we are grateful for their vision. It would be helpful if this could snowball to a more complete openness across the board. I think it will happen with time and persistence, but I am sure there is a lot of resistance from those who have interest in maintaining the current system. Cheers.
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    Jan 17 2013: I readily admit that I am not an "expert" on anything. I have learned a great deal on many areas through TED and the commenters neophyte, experienced, and expert.

    As an example we discuss current economic conditions. I have selected my preference as Austrian as opposed to the Keynishian theories. My argument would be on political basis not an actual economic argument. Whereas the "expert peer" would be capable of arguing the intrensic and nuances values of the paper.

    Perhaps there is a need to discuss the author. There are three types, in my opinion. 1) One in the service and developing a paper at the request of the government. 2) One who is in the employ of a University and is investigating for the university or under a grant. 3) Papers that were researched, developed, written, and presented at the sole expense and time of the author. With each of these there is a different guide to be followed in regard to the "domain".

    So in regard to the review itself:

    1) Public review (open): The basic argument is announced and two lines of thought are presented to be openly discussed with the commenters option of contact information.

    2) Used as a 'learning opportunity" for masters and PHd candidates. They could argue or defend a paper as a part of the program to challenge their critical thinking skills.

    3) Peer process as exists.

    When a truck was stuck in the tunnel the engineers pondered the problem but a child suggested that they let some air out of the tires. Each of us bring something different to the table. No suggestion, comment, or analysis should be dismissed out of hand.

    To me education is a journey ... To some of my graduate friends it has been a goal ... having a sheeps skin does not make you wise .. it simply implies that you have been exposed ... either the journey is continued or stopped. I answer your last question ... academic dishonest will always exist. Diploma mills are todays educational evil to face.

    • Jan 17 2013: Hi Bob, thanks for your well thought-out comments.

      I think the peer-review process is important and that must be maintained in an open, transparent environment. The traditional method of sending to a journal is eliminated and so the restrictive distribution is eliminated.

      I agree that there is room for option 2 and certainly could set up a collaborative environment if a student had a particular interest in a particular paper.

      There could also be a separate space for Option 1, public comments. However, I think the authors must be allowed the discretion of responding or not. It can be very time consuming to respond to every comment, if there are many. As Fritzie mentioned, some material may be irrelevant and create a "noisy" distraction. I t really depends on the type of article. Some are so specialized that only a handful of people have a clue while others have great public interest. Two recent publications come to mind that had both the professionals outraged and the public buzzing - one was a study that supposedly demonstrated that eggs were as bad for your heart as smoking and the other that being overweight was more healthy than not. I think a lot of experts would have liked to weigh in before they were published.

      The principal point, however, is that the material be freely accessibly. If the peer-review is done openly on the authors' website by experts, the quality of the material is not compromised and will almost certainly be enhanced by the transparency.

      As for the dishonesty, I think it will exist as much as it exists in any other aspect of human life. However, the real problem is that it is pervasive and entrenched and is seen as the norm. I think this is wrong and needs to change. Academics are protected by an illusion of integrity, unfortunately.
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        Feb 15 2013: Julie, Being old and a windbag are a bad combination .. I appoligise. However, I had two more thoughts to share. 1) The publishing in journals and our peer review ensure that the academic community are made aware, that leads to prizes, awards, and recognition throughout the community nationally and internationally and 2) There is always the thought that it needs protection for development and sales. If I found a cure for the common cold .. the knowledge that I was a hero, genious, etc ... would be nothing to the marketing of the product. I could change the name of the Nobel prize to the Winner Coveted Cup from the Desert Kollege of Knowledge.

        Fame is one thing but trillions in profits are a whole new ball game.

        Thanks for the reply. I wish you well. Bob.
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    • Jan 16 2013: Hi Kate, Thanks for the comment. I don't envision that there would be a lot of costs to recover, as I mentioned in the response to Fritzie. The cost is usually associated with publishers, and if that is eliminated, each author or institution will store their own articles and deal with the discussions. There may be added costs to maintaining the website, but for universities and similar institutions it would be negligible. The idea is not necessarily to have all the articles in one place, but for them to be searchable, on the authors' sites.

      There is a lot that is unjust in the publishing world and it really needs to end. We consider ourselves to be civilized and we should act accordingly, I agree. Cheers.
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      Jan 16 2013: 'That is a real hazard of being sensitive, 'special' and having a strong history of depression. '

      I'm sorry, but what?!
      The government went on a complete onslaught against this guy.
      They bankrupted him (out of Millions), pushed aside all companies/parties involved and made it beyond clear to everyone that they're not going to let this go until he's hit with a 35 year sentence and a enough fines to bankrupt his family (estimated, another million).

      This was in no way a legitimate legal case. They went out of their way to make an example out of this guy and get rid of him and sadly he didn't have the capacity to cope (or escape to China and then do it all again x50 for their government which I would have done in a goddamn instant, had America pulled this on me).
  • Jan 16 2013: Maybe there should be an alternative to destroying a young man's life in a situation like this. In fact, maybe there was. I wonder if he was confronted with this problem and asked to stop and shown how to stop doing this. So my question is - are minor transgressions and cases of dumbth given a chance to stop, Was Aaron Swartz a bad guy or just a "Gomer Pyle" ?
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      Jan 16 2013: I don't think the words "bad guy" apply in a case like this, though "Gomer Pyle" certainly doesn't either! Here was a genius who had been depressive for years (blogging about suicide at least five years prior) and whose father, according to news report, is an Intellectual Property advisor to MIT, the institution where the transgression took place. Intellectual property is the area of law into which this situation falls. In other words, practically no one would have had at hand more accessible professional advice on the boundaries of what is legal in this area and a better likelihood of highest quality courtroom defense than Aaron.

      This is another one of those cases that shines a spotlight on the tragedy of mental health issues, even among the privileged.
    • Jan 16 2013: George, I don't think Aaron was either. From everything I have read, he was a brilliant young man interested in open access to published materials. It seems that while Jstor, the injured party, had settled any grievances with him some time ago, the US attorney had another agenda. That is my understanding, anyway. Thanks for the input.
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    Jan 15 2013: I wish this were two separate questions- one about whether all academic publications should be available for free to everyone and the other whether the peer review process should be altered so that authors would need to defend their work prior to publication with anyone who felt like commenting, regardless of background in the domain.
    • Jan 16 2013: Hi Fritzie, I think your views on both questions would be relevant and useful. Would like to hear your thoughts. Thx.
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        Jan 16 2013: I'll be watching this one mainly from the sidelines. My first thought on the first is that while the marginal cost of making papers available is zero, the average cost is not, so there needs to be a way of covering the costs of collecting, reviewing, preparing, and communicating about submitted manuscripts.

        In terms of the second, I think there is a tremendous benefit to the world of sound research and scholarship, that requiring active scholars to engage in lengthy conversations about their work with those who cannot begin to understand it is inefficient and distracts them from more socially beneficial uses of their time, and that I value that there are some places that can reliably separate the sound and high quality material from the sloppy and the bunk.

        It is too time consuming for everyone to sift through individually, and many people do not have the skills to distinguish immediately neuroscience from neurobunk (see Molly Crockett's recent TED talk on neurobunk), quantum physics from quantum bunk (we sorely need a talk on this one!), science, generally speaking, from pseudoscience, valid statistical analysis from wishful thinking or incompetent work... So expert review is of great value to many consumers of scholarly information- not just other scholars.
        • Jan 16 2013: Hi Fritzie,thanks for the response. My thoughts are that the process would eliminate the need for journals and hence there is no cost at that level. The reviewers would likely be persons with particular interest in that paper. The reviewer would register on the authors' website, just as one registers for LinkedIn, for example, but with full disclosure of name, institution etc. The authors can check the persons qualifications and allow the open process to proceed. The extra cost here would be hosting the website. Any IT department should be able to set this up with minimal effort and no extra cost.

          Hence, the reviewers would only be qualified persons, but everyone can read the article and the reviews. The fact that the authors need to take time to enter into discussions with experts is a good thing. It not only adds the perspective of other experts but it adds transparency to the process. If there are three authors on the paper, they can take turns dealing with the discussions. It becomes a part of their regular work.

          The people who are excluded from the process are journal publishers. As I see it, the quality of work is not compromised but rather enhanced.
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        Jan 16 2013: You might want to clarify why you think the reviewers would be qualified persons. Interested and qualified are not the same. Authors would in any case enter into discussions with other experts, as that is what peer review is. It is the non-experts who under your proposal would enter the mix.
        • Jan 16 2013: Hi Fritzie, you are quite right that interested does not necessarily mean qualified. I think what needs to be clarified is that the peer-review process remains as a visible, transparent process. The middle man- the journal that maintains the rights for distribution, is removed.

          As an example, it might be helpful to have a look at the site for this journal. There is an open review and discussion process, with qualified individuals, that everyone can see. My proposal would use a similar process but within the institution, not necessarily through a journal.

          In short, the reviews are done by experts but the original articles, discussions and revised articles are available to everyone.

          Sorry - the removed post above was this one - it was just in the wrong place.