MIT Professors Were Divided On Aaron Swartz’s Actions

A survey of MIT professors conducted in 2011 reveals conflicted support for Swartz’s ideals and his raid of the JSTOR online archive of academic documents. “I am sympathetic to his goals, but disgusted by his methods.”

The New York Times, Michael Francis McElroy / AP

MIT’s role in the Aaron Swartz case is complicated at best — it reportedly blocked a plea bargain that would’ve let him off without jail time even though JSTOR supported it and “several MIT officials expressed concerns that prosecutors were ‘overreaching,’” according to the Huffington Post, and the institution is currently in the midst of some official soul-searching of its own actions.

So an anonymous survey of MIT professors in July 2011 just published by Gregg Housh, mostly famous for his stint as Anonymous’s de facto spokesperson, is especially revealing of the mood at the elite institution surrounding Swartz’s actions before his death cast a new light on the issue — to the point that Swartz himself asked the survey’s creator for the data in October, a few months before he died. The survey’s maker did not turn over the data to Swartz; Housh is now putting it out publicly on behalf of his anonymous source.* (Here’s a link to the full data spread, from which I’ve built the chart below.)

On a scale of 1 to 5, 1 is “strongly do not support/identify,” while 5 is “strongly support/identify.” Each pair of bars charts the response from a single respondent.

Its 35 responses reveal that while MIT professors don’t super strongly support “paywalls limiting access to academic documents,” they also by and large do not “identify with Aaron Swartz’s alleged actions.” Additional comments provided by respondents are also striking, revealing a pattern of supporting Swartz’s cause without supporting his actions. Here are a few:

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.

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.

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.

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.

All academic work should be open to all.

The question of whether JSTOR should offer its content free is different from the question of whether stealing content from them is acceptable.

And a zinger:

He was at the Center for Ethics at Harvard? This to me either says something about ethics today or says something about Harvard.

I’ve reached out to the survey’s creator for further comment about how respondents feel now, but haven’t heard back yet. Check out the survey data for yourself here:

*Correction: Swartz didn’t ask Housh for the data, he asked the original creator of the survey for the data. To be clear, Housh is publishing the survey which was created by another, anonymous person.

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