Aaron Swartz, PaySwarm, and Academic Journals

For those of you that haven’t heard yet, Aaron Swartz took his own life two days ago. Larry Lessig has a follow-up on one of the reasons he thinks led to his suicide (the threat of 50 years in jail over the JSTOR case).

I didn’t know Aaron at all. A large number of people that I deeply respect did, and have written about his life with great admiration. I, like most of you that have read the news, have done so while brewing a cauldron of mixed emotions. Saddened that someone that had achieved so much good in their life is no longer in this world. Angry that Aaron chose this ending. Sickened that this is the second recent suicide, Iilya’s being the first, involving a young technologist trying to make the world a better place for all of us. Afraid that other technologists like Aaron and Iilya will choose this path over persisting in their noble causes. Helpless. Helpless because this moment will pass, just like Iilya’s did, with no great change in the way our society deals with mental illness. With no great change, in what Aaron was fighting for, having been realized.

Nobody likes feeling helpless. I can’t mourn Aaron because I didn’t know him. I can mourn the idea of Aaron, of the things he stood for. While reading about what he stood for, several disconnected ideas kept rattling around in the back of my head:

  1. We’ve hit a point of ridiculousness in our society where people at HSBC knowingly laundering money for drug cartels get away with it, while people like Aaron are labeled a felon and face upwards of 50 years in jail for “stealing” academic articles. This, even after the publisher of said academic articles drops the charges. MIT never dropped their charges.
  2. MIT should make it clear that he was not a felon or a criminal. MIT should posthumously pardon Aaron and commend him for his life’s work.
  3. The way we do peer-review and publish scientific research has to change.
  4. I want to stop reading about all of this, it’s heartbreaking. I want to do something about it – make something positive out of this mess.

Ideas, Floating

I was catching up on news this morning when the following floated past on Twitter:

clifflampe: It seems to me that the best way for we academics to honor Aaron Swartz’s memory is to frigging finally figure out open access publishing.

1Copenut: @clifflampe And finally implement a micropayment system like @manusporny’s #payswarm. I don’t want the paper-but I’ll pay for the stories.

1Copenut: @manusporny These new developments with #payswarm are a great advance. Is it workable with other backends like #Middleman or #Sinatra?

This was interesting because we have been talking about how PaySwarm could be applied to academic publishing for a while now. All the discussions to this point have been internal, we didn’t know if anybody would make the connection between the infrastructure that PaySwarm provides and how it could be applied to academic journals. This is up on our ideas board as a potential area that PaySwarm could be applied:

  • Payswarm for peer-reviewed, academic publishing
    • Use Payswarm identity mechanism to establish trusted reviewer and author identities for peer review
    • Use micropayment mechanism to fund research
    • Enable university-based group-accounts for purchasing articles, or refunding researcher purchases

Journals as Necessary Evils

For those in academia, journals are often viewed as a necessary evil. They cost a fortune to subscribe to, farm out most of their work to academics that do it for free, and employ an iron-grip on the scientific publication process. Most academics that I speak with would do away with journal organizations in a heartbeat if there was a viable alternative. Most of the problem is political, which is why we haven’t felt compelled to pursue fixing it. Political problems often need a groundswell of support and a number of champions that are working inside the community. I think the groundswell is almost here. I don’t know who the set of academic champions are that will be the ones to push this forward. Additionally, if nobody takes the initiative to build such a system, things won’t change.

Here’s what we (Digital Bazaar) have been thinking. To fix the problem, you need at least the following core features:

  • Web-scale identity mechanisms – so that you can identify reviewers and authors for the peer-review process regardless of which site is publishing or reviewing a paper.
  • Decentralized solution – so that universities and researchers drive the process – not the publishers of journals.
  • Some form of remuneration system – you want to reward researchers with heavily cited papers, but in a way that makes it very hard to game the system.

Scientific Remuneration

PaySwarm could be used to implement each of these core features. At its core, PaySwarm is a decentralized payment mechanism for the Web. It also has a decentralized identity mechanism that is solid, but in a way that does not violate your privacy. There is a demo that shows how it can be applied to WordPress blogs where just an abstract is published, and if the reader wants to see more of the article, they can pay a small fee to read it. It doesn’t take a big stretch of the imagination to replace “blog article” with “research paper”. The hope is that researchers would set access prices on articles such that any purchase to access the research paper would then go to directly funding their current research. This would empower universities and researchers with an additional revenue stream while reducing the grip that scientific publishers currently have on our higher-education institutions.

A Decentralized Peer-review Process

Remuneration is just one aspect of the problem. Arguably, it is the lesser of the problems in academic publishing. The biggest technical problem is how you do peer review on a global, distributed scale. Quite obviously, you need a solid identity system that can identify scientists over the long term. You need to understand a scientists body of work and how respected their research is in their field. You also need a review system that is capable of pairing scientists and papers in need of review. PaySwarm has a strong identity system in place using the Web as the identification mechanism. Here is the PaySwarm identity that I use for development: https://dev.payswarm.com/i/manu. Clearly, paper publishing systems wouldn’t expose that identity URL to people using the system, but I include it to show what a Web-scale identifier looks like.

Web-scale Identity

If you go to that identity URL, you will see two sets of information: my public financial accounts and my digital signature keys. A PaySwarm Authority can annotate this identity with even more information, like whether or not an e-mail address has been verified against the identity. Is there a verified cellphone on record for the identity? Is there a verified driver’s license on record for the identity? What about a Twitter handle? A Google+ handle? All of these pieces of information can be added and verified by the PaySwarm Authority in order to build an identity that others can trust on the Web.

What sorts of pieces of information need to be added to a PaySwarm identity to trust its use for academic publishing? Perhaps a list of articles published by the identity? Review comments for all other papers that have been reviewed by the identity? Areas of research that other’s have certified that the identity is an expert on? This is pretty basic Web-of-trust stuff, but it’s important to understand that PaySwarm has this sort of stuff baked into the core of the design.

The Process

Leveraging identity to make decentralized peer-review work is the goal, and here is how it would work from a researcher perspective:

  1. A researcher would get a PaySwarm identity from any PaySwarm Authority, there is no cost associated with getting such an identity. This sub-system is already implemented in PaySwarm.
  2. A researcher would publish an abstract of their paper in a Linked Data format such as RDFa. This abstract would identify the authors of the paper and some other basic information about the paper. It would also have a digital signature on the information using the PaySwarm identity that was acquired in the previous step. The researcher would set the cost to access the full article using any PaySwarm-compatible system. All of this is already implemented in PaySwarm.
  3. A paper publishing system would be used to request a review among academic peers. Those peers would review the paper and publish digital signatures on review comments, possibly with a notice that the paper is ready to be published. This sub-system is fairly trivial to implement and would mirror the current review process with the important distinction that it would not be centralized at journal publications.
  4. Once a pre-set limit on the number of positive reviews has been met, the paper publishing system would place its stamp of approval on the paper. Note that different paper publishing systems may have different metrics just as journals have different metrics today. One benefit to doing it this way is that you don’t need a paper publishing system to put its stamp of approval on a paper at all. If you really wanted to, you could write the software to calculate whether or not the paper has gotten the appropriate amount of review because all of the information is on the Web by default. This part of the system would be fairly trivial to write once the metrics were known. It may take a year or two to get the correct set of metrics in place, but it’s not rocket science and it doesn’t need to be perfect before systems such as this are used to publish papers.

From a reviewer perspective, it would work like so:

  1. You are asked to review papers by your peers once you have an acceptable body of published work. All of your work can be verified because it is tied to your PaySwarm identity. All review comments can be verified as they are tied to other PaySwarm identities. This part is fairly trivial to implement, most of the work is already done for PaySwarm.
  2. Once you review a paper, you digitally sign your comments on the paper. If it is a good paper, you also include a claim that it is ready for broad publication. Again, technically simple to implement.
  3. Your reputation builds as you review more papers. The way that reputation is calculated is outside of the scope of this blog post mainly because it would need a great deal of input from academics around the world. Reputation is something that can be calculated, but many will argue about the algorithm and I would expect this to oscillate throughout the years as the system grows. In the end, there will probably be multiple reputation algorithms, not just one. All that matters is that people trust the reputation algorithms.

Freedom to Research and Publish

The end-goal is to build a system that empowers researchers and research institutions, is far more transparent than the current peer-reviewed publishing system, and remunerates the people doing the work more directly. You will also note that at no point does a traditional journal enter the picture to give you a stamp of approval and charge you a fee for publishing your paper. Researchers are in control of the costs at all stages. As I’ve said above, the hard part isn’t the technical nature of the project, it’s the political nature of it. I don’t know if this is enough of a pain-point among academics to actually start doing something about it today. I know some are, but I don’t know if many would use such a system over the draw of publications like Nature, PLOS, Molecular Genetics and Genomics, and Planta. Quite obviously, what I’ve proposed above isn’t a complete road map. There are issues and details that would need to be hammered out. However, I don’t understand why a system like this doesn’t already exist, so I implore the academic community to explain why what I’ve laid out above hasn’t been done yet.

It’s obvious that a system like this would be good for the world. Building such a system may have reduced the possibility of us losing someone like Aaron in the way that we did. He was certainly fighting for something like it. Talking about it makes me feel a bit less helpless than I did yesterday. Maybe making something good out of this mess will help some of you out there as well. If others offer to help, we can start building it.

So how about it researchers of the world, would you publish all of your research through such a system?

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