Archaeology, Open Access, And The Passing Of Aaron Swartz

Eric Kansa | Digging Digitally | January 13, 2013

I don’t post to this blog as much as I used to, but every once in a while there are some developments in the world of data sharing and scholarly communications that I think worthwhile discussing with respect to archaeology. This blog post is an attempt to gather my thoughts on the issue of Open Access in advance of a forum on the subject that will be held at the Society for American Archaeology’s (SAA) annual meeting in Honolulu in April.

Yesterday, I learned that Aaron Swartz committed suicide at age 26. Aaron Swartz was active and prominent in many “open knowledge” efforts.  I had no real personal connection with him, and only remember meeting him once at a party thrown by Creative Commons in 2006 or so. I had no idea he was so young. His tragic death is reverberating around a community of activists that value sharing of knowledge and a free and open internet.

What does all this have to do with archaeology?

The story of Swartz’s death involves JSTOR. Most archaeologists have some familiarity with JSTOR, the online journal repository. JSTOR was originally funded by the Mellon Foundation. In some ways it is a resounding success, as it serves many, many scholars worldwide, including many archaeologists. Unlike many digital scholarly communications initiatives, JSTOR is also financially “sustainable.” It is held up as a model for how to do digital scholarship right. It serves a large community and does not have to come back year after year begging for more grant money. JSTOR’s revenues come largely from subscriptions. If you don’t have an affiliation with a subscribing institution to JSTOR, you don’t get access to the vast majority of its resources. In other words, JSTOR sustains itself by setting up a “pay wall.”  That pay wall blocks some 150 million attempts to access JSTOR every year...