Read Me from the torrent...
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This archive contains 18,592 scientific publications totaling
33GiB, all from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society
and which should be available to everyone at no cost, but most
have previously only been made available at high prices through
paywall gatekeepers like JSTOR.
Limited access to the documents here is typically sold for $19
USD per article, though some of the older ones are available as
cheaply as $8. Purchasing access to this collection one article
at a time would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Also included is the basic factual metadata allowing you to
locate works by title, author, or publication date, and a
checksum file to allow you to check for corruption.
I've had these files for a long time, but I've been afraid that if I
published them I would be subject to unjust legal harassment by those who
profit from controlling access to these works.
I now feel that I've been making the wrong decision.
On July 19th 2011, Aaron Swartz was criminally charged by the US Attorney
General's office for, effectively, downloading too many academic papers
Academic publishing is an odd system—the authors are not paid for their
writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they're just more unpaid academics),
and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the
authors must even pay the publishers.
And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously
expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access
fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals,
but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.
As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little
significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The
"publish or perish" pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly
weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.
Those with the most power to change the system--the long-tenured luminary
scholars whose works give legitimacy and prestige to the journals, rather
than the other way around--are the least impacted by its failures. They
are supported by institutions who invisibly provide access to all of the
resources they need. And as the journals depend on them, they may ask
for alterations to the standard contract without risking their career on
the loss of a publication offer. Many don't even realize the extent to
which academic work is inaccessible to the general public, nor do they
realize what sort of work is being done outside universities that would
benefit by it.
Large publishers are now able to purchase the political clout needed
to abuse the narrow commercial scope of copyright protection, extending
it to completely inapplicable areas: slavish reproductions of historic
documents and art, for example, and exploiting the labors of unpaid
scientists. They're even able to make the taxpayers pay for their
attacks on free society by pursuing criminal prosecution (copyright has
classically been a civil matter) and by burdening public institutions
with outrageous subscription fees.
Copyright is a legal fiction representing a narrow compromise: we give
up some of our natural right to exchange information in exchange for
creating an economic incentive to author, so that we may all enjoy more
works. When publishers abuse the system to prop up their existence,
when they misrepresent the extent of copyright coverage, when they use
threats of frivolous litigation to suppress the dissemination of publicly
owned works, they are stealing from everyone else.
Several years ago I came into possession, through rather boring and
lawful means, of a large collection of JSTOR documents.
These particular documents are the historic back archives of the
Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society—a prestigious scientific
journal with a history extending back to the 1600s.
The portion of the collection included in this archive, ones published
prior to 1923 and therefore obviously in the public domain, total some
18,592 papers and 33 gigabytes of data.
The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind,
and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available
freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each--for one month's
viewing, by one person, on one computer. It's a steal. From you.
When I received these documents I had grand plans of uploading them to
Wikipedia's sister site for reference works, Wikisource— where they
could be tightly interlinked with Wikipedia, providing interesting
historical context to the encyclopedia articles. For example, Uranus
was discovered in 1781 by William Herschel; why not take a look at
the paper where he originally disclosed his discovery? (Or one of the
several follow on publications about its satellites, or the dozens of
other papers he authored?)
But I soon found the reality of the situation to be less than appealing:
publishing the documents freely was likely to bring frivolous litigation
from the publishers.
As in many other cases, I could expect them to claim that their slavish
reproduction—scanning the documents— created a new copyright
interest. Or that distributing the documents complete with the trivial
watermarks they added constituted unlawful copying of that mark. They
might even pursue strawman criminal charges claiming that whoever obtained
the files must have violated some kind of anti-hacking laws.
In my discreet inquiry, I was unable to find anyone willing to cover
the potentially unbounded legal costs I risked, even though the only
unlawful action here is the fraudulent misuse of copyright by JSTOR and
the Royal Society to withhold access from the public to that which is
legally and morally everyone's property.
In the meantime, and to great fanfare as part of their 350th anniversary,
the RSOL opened up "free" access to their historic archives—but "free"
only meant "with many odious terms", and access was limited to about
All too often journals, galleries, and museums are becoming not
disseminators of knowledge—as their lofty mission statements
suggest—but censors of knowledge, because censoring is the one thing
they do better than the Internet does. Stewardship and curation are
valuable functions, but their value is negative when there is only one
steward and one curator, whose judgment reigns supreme as the final word
on what everyone else sees and knows. If their recommendations have value
they can be heeded without the coercive abuse of copyright to silence
The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific
inquiry. More than in any other area, the application of restrictive
copyright is inappropriate for academic works: there is no sticky question
of how to pay authors or reviewers, as the publishers are already not
paying them. And unlike 'mere' works of entertainment, liberal access
to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued
survival may even depend on it.
If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous
industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding,
then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified—it will be one
less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent
lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers
I had considered releasing this collection anonymously, but others pointed
out that the obviously overzealous prosecutors of Aaron Swartz would
probably accuse him of it and add it to their growing list of ridiculous
charges. This didn't sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe
that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to.
I'm interested in hearing about any enjoyable discoveries or even useful
applications which come of this archive.
Greg Maxwell - July 20th firstname.lastname@example.org
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