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Aaron Swartz memorial #PDFtribute: just another form of slacktivism?

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Academics don’t usually seem the rebellious type. But as word of Reddit co-founder and Internet activist Aaron Swartz’s death spread across Twitter last weekend, an unusual protest spread along with it.

Eva Vivalt, an D.C.-based economist, tweeted a link to her collected PDFs and encouraged other academics to do the same. Soon, thousands of writers and scholars were releasing their paywalled journal articles into cyberspace with the hashtag #PDFtribute, a call to honor Swartz’s love of free information— and to condemn the closed publishing system against which he fought.

“It’s really about open access to knowledge,” Vivalt told the Post on Monday.

Everyone from Anonymous to Emory University’s open access librarian has lauded Vivalt and her hash-tagging cohort. But despite its good intentions, #PDFtribute suffers the same flaws as WhiteHouse.gov petitions, e-mail chain letters, and those endless Facebook posts guilting you to change your profile picture for some cause or another: It sounds good on the screen, but when all is tweeted and done, nothing actually happens.

There’s the anarchy of the project, for starters. On PDFTribute.net, a site set up to highlight “freed” academic papers, many of the links point to rants, conspiracy theories or tangential news stories. For every “Crystallization and preliminary X-ray characterization of a glycerol dehydrogrenase,” there are two “hacker manifests.”

Plus, as George Mason professor Dan Cohen points out in a lengthy editorial for Wired, this protest does nothing to address the underlying problems of the academic publishing system. Most academics still want, and need, to publish in top journals to advance their careers, he writes — and many of the most prestigious journals are closed. Overturning that entrenched, highly incentivized system, he argues, will take more than a few “liberated” articles.

In fact, even those articles may not be that free. Heidi McGregor, a spokeswoman for JSTOR, the nonprofit digital academic library that prosecutors accused Swartz of hacking, points out that publishers own the copyrights to many of the #PDFtributes. (JSTOR itself holds no copyrights; “we’ve supported authors making their work available for years” subject the terms of their copyright, McGregor said.)

The issue of copyright and ownership really gets to the ineffectuality of the #PDFtributes. Many of the academics who “liberated” their work had already published it in closed journals — and some will continue to do so in the future. So while the information might be “free,” it still made money for publishers, points out “computational ethnographer” and prolific tweeter Alex Leavitt.

“Note to academics: even if you publish copies of your articles online, you may still be helping sustain closed journals,” Leavitt tweeted on Sunday.

Critics like Micah White, Evgeny Morozov and Malcolm Gladwell have a name for this well-intentioned, toothless and frequently digital brand of advocacy. It’s called “slacktivism,” and it’s exemplified by click-to-donate sites, Internet petitions and viral videos such as “Kony 2012” — all campaigns that are easy and painless to support.

While the term slacktivism has been in use since 1995, according to a paper in the journal First Monday (incidentally, one of the first openly accessible, peer-reviewed journals on the Web), it’s taken on new significance— and furor— in the digital age.

“‘Slacktivism’ is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation,” Evgeny Morozov wrote in a blog post for NPR in May 2009. “Why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space?”

Ironically, no one understood that distinction better than Swartz, whose idea of social change included walking into a network closet at MIT, plugging his computer into the network, and downloading millions of academic articles locked behind a JSTOR paywall. That bit of “hacktivism” earned him an indictment on federal computer hacking charges, with a maximum penalty of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine.

In a statement, Swartz’s family blamed those charges in large part for his death.

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