July 2011 Survey of MIT Professors About Aaron Swartz’s Case

I (Gregg Housh) was given this data anonymously. I did not conduct this survey, although I have verified that the survey happened, and that the data is trustworthy. Below you will find an explanation from the person who did the survey, and then the data itself. Below the divider anytime “I” is used, it is referring to the author of the survey and not me.

Less than a week after Aaron Swartz was indicted in July 2011 for downloading about four million articles from JSTOR on the MIT network, I conducted a survey of MIT professors on their opinions about Aaron Swartz’s alleged actions and access to academic documents. This survey asked the following three questions. All three questions were optional.

  1. On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is strongly do not identify with and 5 is strongly identify with, how strongly do you identify with the alleged actions of Aaron Swartz?
  2. On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is strongly not supporting and 5 is strongly supporting, to what degree do you support paywalls limiting access to academic journals and other educational documents?
  3. Do you have any other ideas or comments on the Aaron Swartz case, open access to journals, or other related topics?

I did not provide any promises about anonymity or privacy, but I also did not say the data would be released. In light of Aaron’s recent death, I have decided to remove any identifying information and release the data. I only received thirty-five responses and the sample is not representative, but it provides some interesting information on the positions of MIT professors at the time.

There is another reason I feel that I should release this data. Aaron knew about this survey. In late October 2012, Aaron emailed me and asked if I could send him the data. I did not send it to him. Instead, I responded asking which parts he was interested in because I did not want to compromise the privacy of the participants. I did not hear back and did not follow up after that. I should have.

Below, you can find the data for download, a table with the data, and graphs. Please feel free to redistribute and use this. I have also provided a copy of this data to Hal Abelson, the person conducting the internal investigation of MIT’s involvement in the case.

I have chosen to release this data anonymously because this is not about me and I do not see a compelling reason to release this under my name. I would appreciate it if people could respect that, even if you know who I am. You can contact me at mitswartzsurvey@lavabit.com if necessary.



Table Columns:

Column 1: On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is strongly do not identify with and 5 is strongly identify with, how strongly do you identify with the alleged actions of Aaron Swartz?
Column 1 Mean: 2
Column 1 Median: 2

Column 2: On a scale of 1 to 5 where 1 is strongly not supporting and 5 is strongly supporting, to what degree do you support paywalls limiting access to academic journals and other educational documents?
Column 2 Mean: 2.667
Column 2 Median: 3

Question 3: Do you have any other ideas or comments on the Aaron Swartz case, open access to journals, or other related topics?

C1 C2 C3
5 2 -
3 2 -
2 4 -
2 3 As a personal choice, I put my books and many notes on the web to be accessed by anyone, and I support others doing the same. However, publishing is expensive and I don’t approve of Swartz’ actions in taking the law into his own hands. I also don’t approve of the government blowing this out of proportion.
1 1 I am not highly familiar with the case, but have read the press coverage. Based on that, I am sympathetic to his goals, but disgusted by his methods.
1 3 -
1 4 While I do not appreciate paying significant amounts of money for older, archived journal articles, I do not condone massive abuse of a legitimate publication distribution system. I would fight the system by publishing in open access journals. Aaron Swartz’s abuses endangered what little free access MIT faculty and students had to the literature.
3 3 -
2 3 I believe in intellectual property, and that laws should protect those who invest time and money to make it and then wish to sell it. That said, my group publishes in open access journals as much as possible, and I applaud MIT and the US government when they give free access to work they support.
3 2 -
2 3 The question of whether JSTOR should offer its content free is different from the question of whether stealing content from them is acceptable.
2 1 This has made me think that, when I started researching years ago in libraries, you could basically have access to articles for free. Now, JSTOR monopolizes access to scholarly research, limiting access to academic writing to a specific community. What does it mean to us that academic information used to be more freely accessible than it is now?
2 4 I support the idea that copyrighted material should not be taken without permission and redistributed for free to others. This applies to books, music, movies, artwork, and academic journals. Many academic journals are published by non-profit presses and are very cheap in any case. But simply stealing their stuff and distributing it on the Internet is not in the least heroic or commendable.
3 1 -
1 5 how dare he do this. some ethical behavior. he is narcissistic. we can do without him. i hope he does spend some time in jail.
3 2 What he did was stupid and reckless, obviously, but I do think the justification for IP protection has to be rethought in markets where authors have strong non-monetary incentives to produce and distribute IP (such as academic publishing).
1 5 -
1 5 He was at the Center for Ethics at Harvard? This to me either says something about ethics today or says something about Harvard.
- - -
3 2 -
1 4 -
5 1 I believe Mr. Swarz should not be charged with any crime. There are many reasons why one would want to collect a large number of
journal articles, and I do use web “scraping” in my own research. However, Mr. Swarz has not yet publicly explained why he did this, so I’m not sure I can say I “identify” with him.Access to academic articles should be free. Journals and other institutions that operate paywalls typically do not pay the full cost of author labor, nor do they add significant value to the production process. A paywall might be justified in specific circumstances, such as requiring payment for commercial use by for-profit institutions.
1 1 -
5 1 All academic work should be open to all.
2 2 prefer open access journals, though I understand some need to tune their biz models; Aaron should have been able to access them through his own academic affiliation – if not an institution like the public libraries should support such individuals for academic pursuit; but doing so illegally is not cool.
1 2 Aaron Schwartz abused the hospitality of MIT, which has a liberal policy toward “guests.”As a direct result of his actions, researchers at MIT lost access to JSTOR. As a direct result of his actions, MIT must now spend funds to institute a new security system, which will divert funds from support for scholarship and research. In other words, his actions have resulted in less access to research materials for MIT researchers. It is ironic that he chose MIT, which has a policy of open access to research and teaching materials (e.g. OpenCourseware) rather than his own institution, Harvard, which does not support that position to the degree that MIT does. Academic authors must assert the rights to open access to their publications. MIT has required its faculty to do so.
1 3 Just that this man broke into another universities system and did something he clearly knew was wrong. I am sure this is costing MIT valuable resources that we could be spending on making the world a better place. He should go to jail.
1 4 -
1 3 -
2 2 -
3 4 -
1 - Many publishers in this day and age charge for making technical papers available. One can argue whether this is good or bad, but at the moment it is a fact of life.There are many journals which MIT does not have a subscription to, so that I would have to pay for access to the technical papers I need. The cost can be pretty high, $30 or more per paper, which means that I would not try to get the paper.

Making technical papers expensive to access in the end slows down science, and is probably not a good thing.

To download papers from JSTOR for posting for free access seems to me to be a bad thing for the following reasons: JSTOR provides an important service in making the papers available; it would be a bad thing if JSTOR responded to this by making papers unavailable at MIT, or by raising prices, or by imposing a fine; and there are probably better approaches to the problem in the long run which would involve changes in the law or in public policy for funded research.

1 3 Respondent asked not to be quoted in response.
1 2 I support limited open access to journals. But I believe that the cost of publication of journal articles must be shared between users (dominant share), agencies that fund the research, and researchers (token share).
1 1 I’m a strong supporter of open access to journals, but I really don’t see that as being what the Swartz case is about. It’s not clear to me what Swartz was planning to do with the four million articles he downloaded, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt, and assume he had some morally blameless (although illegal) plan for them. Even given this doubtful assumption, Swartz’s alleged actions were still pretty bad: he shouldn’t have been violating the terms of service for MIT’s wireless access, and he certainly shouldn’t have been messing around with the wiring closet. This isn’t just a technicality; people shouldn’t be allowed to violate reasonable security rules just because they really want to.I’m not convinced Swartz should go to jail, but (assuming he is guilty as charged) some community service could be appropriate. I don’t want to throw the book at him. However, I certainly wouldn’t call myself a Swartz supporter just because I support open access.

Data for download:

I also received emails from sixteen people about this survey, some in place of responses. Most of these said the recipient did not feel it was appropriate to respond (for a variety of reasons), did not have enough information to respond, did not have time to respond, or had just responded. Only a few of the emails contained an opinion on the situation. For those, I think the professors may have had a higher expectation of privacy in email (and the comments contained more identifying details), so I will not release the emails without explicit permission.

post image by Nietnagel