Defining(?) Disobedience
Ethan Zuckerman

Thanks for helping to create the prize and for explaining your reasoning behind your selection process. Although I think the winners are fine people and deserving of kudos for their work, I think you missed an opportunity to reward people who have actually taken great risk in disobeying the law and or social convention for the benefit of humanity.

You write “ Both faced harassment and ridicule for their work and risked academic sanctions for defying conventions of peer review as they sought to bring attention to Flint’s water crisis before more people were affected.”

While they might have faced harassment and ridicule for their work, I don’t think they faced any such thing from anyone who could have harmed their careers. Most academics are of a left liberal bent, including the people who sit on editorial boards and tenure track committees. The Flint water crisis was a cause celebré among liberals and it seems highly unlikely they would’ve faced any fallout for their work from their academic peers.

Likewise, publicizing important work before being peer reviewed is commonplace in academia, if not the norm. For example, physicists and mathematicians regularly publish pre-prints to before peer review.

So I don’t see much disobedience at all.

Contrast them with Alexandra Elbakyan, whose sci-hub project has given unprecedented access to the world’s scientific literature. According to a recent paper, sci-hub now contains 68.9% of all 81.6 million scholarly articles, which rises to 85.2% for those published in toll access journals:

Instead of being forced to pay $30 _per article_, impoverished academics from across the globe now have free access to the scientific literature.

Yet as a result of providing this service, Elkabayan faces a $15 million dollar judgment against her for copyright infringement. If she ever travels outside of Russia, she faces risk of arrest and extradition to the US to face trial, financial ruin, and imprisonment.

So why didn’t you give the award to Elbakyan?

“Many committee members felt that Elbakyan had identified a situation worthy of defiance in the world of making research papers available to international scholars, but weren’t willing to accept the idea that making all books free was a worthy goal.”

But if making the world’s academic literature accessible to everyone is a worthy goal for papers, then why wouldn’t the same arguments apply to books?

One explanation is that while academics don’t directly make a lot of money by publishing papers, they do make money by publishing textbooks. So you would probably face the disapproval of your peers if you rewarded someone who cut into their textbook profits.

If that’s the case, I hope that in 2018 you will resist such pressure, and reward Elkabayan for tearing down archaic barriers to the world’s knowledge.

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