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My Encounter with JSTOR (in Homage to Aaron Swartz)

One day, I found a press release from an academic journal, calling attention to one of its articles. That is unusual enough, since the kinds of articles that Aaron Swartz--a “digital Robin Hood,” as a dear friend of mine fondly calls him--was hounded relentlessly for downloading in violation of JSTOR’s “terms of service” are not often of interest to the general population.

In any case, I got a press release. Typically, when a publication or a PR firm sends out a “press release,” it is to elicit interest from writers. Sure enough, I was interested. I have a Ph.D. in a humanities field (history), and the article resonated with me. It looked like solid, important research that deserved a broader audience.

 I clicked on various buttons on the press release. This is the sort of thing that we do all day, and I expected to find an article at the end of the click.  

I was taken over to the JSTOR site. This was no use, because since I am not working out of an academic university library, or in academia, I don’t have free access to the JSTOR archive.  All I saw at the JSTOR site was a picture of the scholarly journal and a very brief abstract. Upon further clicking and investigation, I learned that I would have to pay $30.00 to get a full copy of this article—that is one article, in one volume, of one scholarly journal. 

 In an age when, through a miracle of imagination, smarts, and ingenuity, magazines across the spectrum, from The Economist to entirely online publications, manage to survive by offering at least some free access to valuable content online, or at a minimal subscription price, the academic publishing world, for which JSTOR is a bulwark and sentry, wanted to shake me down for thirty bucks for the privilege of scaling the walls of the barbed Ivory Tower and reading an article and then giving them free publicity.

Ultimately, through making contact with an editor at the journal, I was sent a copy of the article for free, after getting a rudimentary lecture about how of course, I’d have to cite the journal, and author.  Right. I hadn’t thought of that.

It’s this kind of proprietary parsimony about knowledge in academia that angers me. As Lawrence Lessig notes in a blog, we cannot really know why Swartz was downloading so many articles from JSTOR, via a simple script that he had devised to do so quickly. Certainly it wasn’t to sell the articles because, well, there is no market. Nor was Swartz a declared “copyright anarchist.” But the flip side of the question is, why does academia make it so difficult generally to access published knowledge, or to care about it?

Aaron Swartz’s life ended with suicide this week. With the kind of witless tenacity that we’ve seen in Federal investigations—such as the DC scientist who was hounded out of his career for being wrongly named as a suspect in the anthrax mailings many years ago—prosecutors hounded Swartz, who was suffering from depression. 

Some report that Swartz was threatened with a 35-year prison sentence, which is audacious, even as an act of rhetorical bluster. People who have raped, assaulted, maimed, abused, and beaten other human beings are not reliably (or often) threatened by lawyers brandishing a 35-year sentence at them.

But, hey, when it comes to scholarly monographs on “race, class and gender in INSERT TIME AND PLACE HERE,” or the “Violation of Terms of Service,” then it’s balls to the walls.

A tangential problem that this tragedy illustrates is how cloistered and irrelevant academic writing is willing to make itself today—at least in the humanities, which is the only field that I’ve encountered firsthand. A press fights tooth and nail to get a thirty buck royalty for an article, but in so doing, they are penny wise and pound foolish. In the long run, in the optimistic future, isn’t it likely that you do your own “product” and commodity more good both in cultural and financial terms by occasionally circulating it and making it relevant than by hoarding it behind your access restrictions and fees?

True, there are celebrity scholars in the humanities who work really hard to cross over to broader audiences. We still have some public intellectuals, but not the number we had decades ago, when it could be assumed that any educated, mildly erudite citizen would have read at least a few of the major novels or big nonfiction works published in a given year.

These “general audiences” of erudite readers, incidentally, are mocked as fantasies by many university press editors who produce the JSTOR-bound journals, with the exceptions of the very best UPs such as Harvard, Oxford, and Yale that do publish relevant scholarship for non-academics. 

It’s been explained to me (and I also know from having worked for and published with a UP, years ago) that UPs feel there is more coin—although rarely a true profit—in producing hardcover books to be deposited in the intellectual convent of a university library. Editors go for the “bird in hand” of 300 self-referential scholarly experts who simply must buy the book rather than the optimistic fantasy of a book that might appeal to the other 299,999,700 million of us. 

The mission here is not knowledge dissemination, per se. This is mostly a cloistered world with a dysfunctional economy whose mission is narrow self-perpetuation.

This self-perpetuation hinges on the publication of articles that end up in JSTOR, and of scholarly books. Not books for reading, per se, or for the advancement of the common good, or for the enrichment of the culture to which the work rightly should belong but, rather, for the sake of getting someone tenure, somewhere, and landing a career-advancing blow in published view of the scholars who might care.

The first scholarly work is known as “a tenure book,” and is openly called that by editors and scholars.

Imagine any other intellectual, writer, or artist who would name their work according to the selfish, material ends that it fulfills. By that logic I’ll describe my next book as my, “I Need More Money Book,” or my “Get Famous” book.

This tenure book will sell under a thousand—in many cases, way under. If it is exceptional, it will be picked up in undergraduate classes as a paperback, but those works are rare.

The book will be deposited in a university library. Scholarly articles that preceded the Tenure Book will be deposited in JSTOR. 

 Academic publishing does not circulate knowledge so much as it warehouses it.

And this to me was Aaron Swartz’s admirable, underlying hubris: Whatever his intentions with the articles that he downloaded, he was treating scholarly knowledge as something that should move, not molder in the stacks—whether the “stacks” be material or virtual.

Live today! Unfiltered lessons of a female entrepreneur

Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT today.

Two MIT students just solved Richard Feynman’s famed physics puzzle

Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.

Surprising Science

Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.

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Two-thirds of parents say technology makes parenting harder

Parental anxieties stem from the complex relationship between technology, child development, and the internet's trove of unseemly content.

Sex & Relationships
  • Today's parents believe parenting is harder now than 20 years ago.
  • A Pew Research Center survey found this belief stems from the new challenges and worries brought by technology.
  • With some schools going remote next year, many parents will need to adjust expectations and re-learn that measured screen usage won't harm their children.

Parents and guardians have always endured a tough road. They are the providers of an entire human being's subsistence. They keep that person feed, clothed, and bathe; They help them learn and invest in their enrichment and experiences; They also help them navigate social life in their early years, and they do all this with limited time and resources, while simultaneously balancing their own lives and careers.

Add to that a barrage of advice and reminders that they can always spend more money, dedicate more time, or flat-out do better, and it's no wonder that psychologists worry about parental burnout.

But is parenting harder today than it was, say, 20 years ago? The Pew Research Center asked more than 3,600 parents this question, and a majority (66 percent) believe the answer is yes. While some classic complaints made the list—a lack of discipline, a disrespectful generation, and the changing moral landscape—the most common reason cited was the impact of digital technology and social media.

A mixed response to technology

children using desktop computer

Parents worry that their children spend too much time in front of screens while also recognizing technologies educational benefits.

(Photo: Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

This parental concern stems not only from the ubiquity of screens in children's lives, but the well-publicized relationship between screen time and child development. Headlines abound citing the pernicious effects screen time has on cognitive and language development. Professional organizations, such as the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, issue warnings that too much screen time can lead to sleep problems, lower grades, weight problems, mood problems, poor self-image, and the fear of missing out—to name a few!

According to Pew's research, parents—which Pew defines as an adult or guardian with at least one child under their care, though they may also have adult children—have taken these warnings to heart. While 84 percent of those surveyed are confident they know how much screen time is appropriate, 71 percent worry their child spends too much time in front of screens.

To counter this worry, most parents take the measured approach of setting limits on the length of time children can access screens. Others limit which technologies children have access to. A majority of parents (71 percent) view smartphones as potentially harmful to children. They believe the devices impair learning effective social skills, developing healthy friendships, or being creative. As a result, about the same percentage of parents believe children should be at least 12 years old before owning a smartphone or using social media.

But a deeper concern than screen time seems to be what content those screens can access. An overwhelming 98 percent of those surveyed say parents and guardians shouldered the responsibility of protecting children from inappropriate online content. Far less put the responsibility on tech companies (78 percent) or the government (65 percent).

Parents of young children say they check the websites and apps their children use and set parental controls to restrict access. A minority of parents admit to looking at call and text records, tracking their child's location with GPS, or following their child on social media.

Yet, parents also recognize the value of digital technology or, at least, have acquiesced to its omnipresence. The poster child for this dichotomy is YouTube, with its one billion hours played daily, many before children's eyes. Seventy-three percent of parents with young children are concerned that their child will encounter inappropriate content on the platform, and 46 percent say they already have. Yet, 80 percent still let their children watch videos, many letting them do so daily. Some reasons cited are that they can learn new things or be exposed to different cultures. The number one cited reason, however, is to keep children entertained.

For the Pew Research Center's complete report, check out "Parenting Children in the Age of Screens."

Screens, parents, and pandemics

Perhaps most troubling, Pew's survey was conducted in early March. That's before novel coronavirus spread wildly across the United States. Before shelter-in-place laws. Before schools shuttered their doors. Before desperate parents, who suddenly found themselves their child's only social and educational outlet, needed a digital lifeline to help them cope.

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many parents to rely on e-learning platforms and YouTube to supplement their children's education—or just let the kids enjoy their umpteenth viewing of "Moana" so they can eke out a bit more work. With that increase in screen time comes a corresponding increase in guilt, anxiety, and frustration.

But are these concerns overblown?

As Jenny Radesky, M.D., a pediatrician and expert on children and the media at the University of Michigan's C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, told the New York Times, parents don't always need to view screen time as a negative. "Even the phrase 'screen time' itself is problematic. It reduces the debate to a black and white issue, when the reality is much more nuanced," Radesky said.

Radesky helped the American Academy of Pediatrics craft its statement about screen time use during the pandemic. While the AAP urges parents to preserve offline experiences and maintain limits, the organization acknowledges that children's media use will, by necessity, increase. To make it a supportive experience, the statement recommends parents make a plan with their children, be selective of the quality of media, and use social media to maintain connections together. It also encourages parents to adjust their expectations and notice their own technology use.

"We are trying to prevent parents from feeling like they are not meeting some sort of standard," Radesky said. "There is no science behind this right now. If you are looking for specific time limits, then I would say: Don't be on it all day."

This is good advice for parents, now and after the pandemic. While studies show that excessive screen time is deleterious, others show no harm from measured, metered use. For every fear that screens make our kids stupid, there's a study showing the kids are all right. If we maintain realistic standards and learn to weigh quality and quantity within those standards, maybe parenting in the digital age won't seem so darn difficult.

How meditation can change your life and mind

Reaching beyond the stereotypes of meditation and embracing the science of mindfulness.

  • There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to what mindfulness is and what meditation can do for those who practice it. In this video, professors, neuroscientists, psychologists, composers, authors, and a former Buddhist monk share their experiences, explain the science behind meditation, and discuss the benefits of learning to be in the moment.
  • "Mindfulness allows us to shift our relationship to our experience," explains psychologist Daniel Goleman. The science shows that long-term meditators have higher levels of gamma waves in their brains even when they are not meditating. The effect of this altered response is yet unknown, though it shows that there are lasting cognitive effects.
  • "I think we're looking at meditation as the next big public health revolution," says ABC News anchor Dan Harris. "Meditation is going to join the pantheon of no-brainers like exercise, brushing your teeth and taking the meds that your doctor prescribes to you." Closing out the video is a guided meditation experience led by author Damien Echols that can be practiced anywhere and repeated as many times as you'd like.
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