Two years ago, writer Simon Oxenham at Big Think broke the story of Alexandra Elbakyan, a researcher from Kazakhstan dubbed the “Robin Hood of Science”. Elbakyan started SciHub, which bypasses journal paywalls to provide illegal free access to anyone who wants them, in 2011. Elsevier, one of the biggest names in academic publishing in the world, has testified that SciHub was harvesting articles at the rate of thousands per day–Elbakyan stated that it was more like hundreds of thousands per day, delivered to more than 19 million users. Oxenham wrote that, with a database of over 48 million articles in 2017, “Sci-Hub represents the sum of countless different universities’ institutional access — literally a world of knowledge.”

Many see Elbakyan as a crusader against an industry that has been unfair since large corporations took over academic publishing. Academic authors are not paid for their contributions, yet Elsevier has an annual income of over $1 billion US dollars; most academics have no choice but to publish in journals owned and operated by these international corporations as they are required to do so to obtain tenure. As Oxenham pointed out in a follow-up piece, virtually every step of the academic publishing process is carried out by volunteers, including editing, reviewing, and production. Journal paywalls make it impossible for people working as social workers, nurses, chemists, or planners to access the latest developments in their field–as they are no longer students or researchers at a university that pays hefty journal subscription fees. Many journals have introduced Open Access options in the past two decades, and about 70% of them do not charge authors publication fees to guarantee that readers can access their articles for free. The rest compound the problem by charging authors hundreds or thousands of dollars per article to be published.

Originally created for a very practical reason–universities in Kazakhstan couldn’t afford journals’ high subscription rates, which is no surprise since even Harvard and Cornell have been unable to keep up–SciHub was built upon the practice of sharing final or pre-publication versions of the articles with fellow researchers. Elbakyan was forced to find pirated articles this way as a student, being unable to afford to pay for every single article she needed to read. Having left Kazakhstan to work in computer security in Moscow for a year, she went to the University of Freiburg in Germany in 2010 to work on a brain-computer interface project. Returning to Kazakhstan and frustrated with the #icanhazPDF approach researchers had to use to find papers through Twitter, she used her coding and hacking skills to create SciHub, which automated the process and made it much more efficient. The process couldn’t be easier to use–just find the article you want to access and then add SciHub’s complete URL. Elbakyan operates the website from Russia using varying domain names and IP addresses.

As Oxenham pointed out, Elbakyan seems to have picked up the baton from Aaron Swartz, the genius inventor of RSS, Creative Commons and co-founder of Reddit. Swartz met a tragic end through suicide after he downloaded the entire contents of the JSTOR database and was beset upon with 13 wire-fraud felony charges. Though Swartz and Elbakyan never met or were aware of each others’ work, they seemed to share some common goals.

In 2015 Elsevier brought a case against SciHub. After Elbakyan’s story was published on Big Think in February 2016 and several other media outlets jumped onboard, Google blocked SciHub’s access to Google Scholar. John Bohannon at Science called SciHub “an awe-inspiring act of altruism or a massive criminal enterprise, depending on whom you ask.” In a default judgement on June 21, 2017, a New York district court awarded Elsevier $15 million for copyright infringement by SciHub and the Library of Genesis (LibGen) project, where Elbakyan was posting content harvested by SciHub. But Elbakyan lives outside the court’s jurisdiction and does not have any US assets, so she can’t be forced to pay even if she could.

Where does that leave our female Robin Hood? Nature named Elbakyan, who calls her mission “scientific communism”, one of the top ten people who matter in science in 2016. As Ian Graber-Stiehl wrote on The Verge a few months ago, the publicity from the case only made SciHub more popular. It is now the biggest Open Access academic resource in the world, with over 64 million articles. Didem Kaya Bayram and Furkan Akyurek at TRT World called SciHub “a game changer for the industry”, arguing that even if it collapses, it shows that the current model of academic publishing is broken and publishers need to change their business model to stay relevant. This victory, shadowed by Swartz’s and her own legal problems, is offset by Elbakyan’s need to stay in hiding–she now studies the history of science at an undisclosed location, and will probably never be able to visit the US. Her role in ushering in a new academic publishing era is firmly established.

 

Since the trend of short-term contracts began in academia in the 1990s and worsened during the Great Recession, there has been a lot of discussion about the lack of academic positions for people with doctoral degrees. Having spent six years on the tenure-track market working in short-term positions before securing the coveted TT, these discussions and media attention have made for interesting reading for me. A recent study illustrates the trend for PhD graduates to find jobs in sectors other than post-secondary institutions, and also illustrates the growing gap between science and engineering disciplines and those in the social science and humanities.

The University of Toronto, regularly ranked as the top university in Canada, recently released its first-ever study of PhD graduates, focusing on those who finished from 2000-2015. Professor Reinhart Reithmeier’s 10,000 PhDs project found that about 60% of the graduates worked in academia and roughly one-third hold tenure-track positions. The percentage of those working in the private sector increased from 13% in 2000 to 23% in 2015. Just 11.6 % of graduates from 2016 found careers in the public sector, which has traditionally been seen as a natural destination for PhDs (and is much more so in Europe, where many work for municipal, regional, and provincial governments).

An interactive tool allows you to explore the data on your own. It reveals other interesting facts, like the increased enrolment in 2005 driven by the perceived need to fill baby boomer retirements (note how flat the humanities and social sciences are here compared to physical and life sciences). This seemed like a good idea at the time, until the Great Recession hit right when this increased cohort was about to hit the job market.

You can view the graduates by gender, immigration status, and field of study. Looking more closely at the employers in each category (e.g. post-secondary institutions, private sector, public sector, charitable organizations, and other) is also eye-opening. For academic employers, U of T was the number one–that is, it hired more of its own graduates than any other academic institution hired. Looking at the private sector employers, the largest group of employers were biotechnology/pharmaceutical companies. For public education, it’s hospitals who employ the most graduates, then government. This illustrates clearly that the options for those in engineering, health, and science degrees, who are considered experts in their field in developing new products and technologies, are far different than for humanities and social science grads. Few private sector employers consider graduates from sociology or urban planning to be experts, or are willing to compensate them for their skills and knowledge to develop new practices or policies. This apparently even holds for public sector employers such as governments. In a recent article claiming that U of T grads are among the most employable in the world, the focus is entirely on those in STEM.

This perception that somehow science and engineering grads are more valuable than those working in social science and humanities begins with marketing to and recruiting undergraduates to funding research to employing graduates of these programs. I just participated in an international call for research proposals with colleagues in Sweden, Norway, Italy, and Germany. The project lead, based in Norway, was astounded to learn that the Canadian funder on this initiative, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), did not consider a proposed project on the role of women in climate change decision making to have an impact on science and engineering. (Note: the grant is meant “to fund research projects that will promote the integration of sex and gender analysis into research at an international level” and “gender dimension in climate behaviour and decision-making” is one of the proposed research topics). I explained to her that in Canada, urban planning is considered a social science or humanities discipline as opposed to a scientific one. The project lead and I used to work together at the University of Amsterdam, where planning was located in the Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences and therefore was considered a science. But here at Dalhousie, planning is located in the Faculty of Architecture and Planning and therefore falls under the realm of the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Applications to NSERC grants from Dalhousie have a 71% success rate; for SSHRC, it’s just 31%. It’s pretty ridiculous that the mere placement of your academic unit, as opposed to the actual topic, research questions, or methods you employ, dictates whether you are a science or a social science/humanity. And that impacts whether your research will be funded or not. And that impacts whether the university considers you to be successful or not, or whether or not employers consider graduates of your field to be experts who deserve to be compensated as such. Is there a reason that a researcher studying the use of a certain chemical in the body’s cells is inherently more valuable in the marketplace than one studying discriminatory hiring practices among immigrants’ employers? At the University of Amsterdam, both would be eligible for grants from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (Nederlande Organizatie voor Wetenschaapelijk Onderzoek).

Clearly, when just one-third of PhD graduates from a U of T, a university that regularly ranks as one of the best in the world, find jobs in academia, it’s time to reconsider the value of a PhD. For 12% of graduates, their employment was unknown, which means that Reithmeier’s team couldn’t find them using internet searches of official university and company websites. Having participated in many discussions (both online and in-person) with those for whom academic jobs were not an option, I know that many end up in the no-mans-land that is searching for jobs for which they are overqualified, with organizations that do not understand what research is or what skills they bring to the table. Some rebrand themselves, become consultants, or retrain in other disciplines because they’ve learned that a history, english, or sociology expert is not valued in the market today. This needs to change. It starts right at the beginning with recruitment, continues with systematic change in the way we fund research at universities, and ends with better education for employers on the skills and knowledge of PhD graduates.

Are neighbourhoods, cities, and regions taking a turn for the worse? Or are they relatively stable?

I’m a co-investigator on a project called Neighbourhood Change Research Partnership (NCRP), a Canada-wide project examining how urban neighbourhoods are changing in places like Calgary, Winnipeg, and Toronto. The Halifax team includes Howard Ramos and Martha Radice, professors in Sociology and Anthropology, and Jill Grant and myself from the School of Planning. Each of us have hired students as research assistants, collecting and analyzing data for the study as well as using the data for their own projects/theses. Jill’s student Uytae Lee conducted research on rooming houses for his undergraduate thesis, and another student, Janelle Derksen, delved further into the issue for her Masters independent study project. You can read their work on Jill’s website (everything from Bachelors theses to academic articles).

Written work is the typical type of product we use to disseminate academic research, but we’re constantly looking for new ways to do this.Lots of researchers use Twitter to release links to their research results, and it’s common to set up research websites like Generationed City, established by University of Waterloo professor Markus Moos. Colleagues at the University of Amsterdam Department of Geography, Planning, and International Development Studies created videos to summarize and disseminate their research on the HOUWEL project on international housing trends among young people.

As I’ve written about in previous posts, Uytae and his classmate Byung-Jun Kang founded the non-profit PLANifax. The duo, alumni of the Dalhousie School of Planning, hires students to work on production, produces videos for clients such as municipal governments and non-profit organizations, and uses their work to educate the broader public about planning issues. They’ve done everything from encouraging involvement in the city’s downtown planning process to exposing the details of rejected development applications. In the latest PLANifax video to summarize Uytae’s thesis findings on rooming houses. It had 7,000 views within 24 hours of posting and Uytae will be interviewed on News 94.7 this afternoon.

Halifax’s Kindof Illegal Student Houses

Student apartments in Halifax are very affordable, despite often being messy, sketchy, and crowded. But in some cases, they may be illegal, kindof.

Not only do videos like this give researchers a potentially unlimited avenue for research dissemination (when’s the last time your academic paper had more than 100 views on the journal website?), but PLANifax is a fantastic example of young entrepreneurship: Byung-Jun won Dalhousie University’s Student Entrepreneur of the Year award earlier this year. I plan to partner with them on research grants so that I can have an interesting product to show to community groups, clients, and students, not to mention at research conferences. Much more interesting than the usual PowerPoint.

I’ll be posting more about the NCRP in future posts, specifically on my own sub-project: development and retention of non-profit housing in Halifax.

 

Last September, I took a position as a Visiting Assistant Professor at the University of Oregon. Even though the position was only for nine months, and required me relocating across the continent to the US, I decided it was worth it. For those of you in a PhD or postdoc, you probably understand this decision–we are all taught that academic jobs are scarce and that we should jump at the chance to take whatever we get. Private sector professionals in urban planning often balance local and international contracts–the larger firms regularly bid on jobs in the US, South America, Europe, and Asia. For those of you working in the public sector, one of the last bastions of job stability, my decision may make less sense.

Contract, temporary, and precarious work has hit virtually every sector and industry. You would be hard pressed to find an office environment, trade, or career option that does not begin with unpaid internships, years of job insecurity, and/or lack of employee benefits. I know people in fields as diverse as nursing, education, and accounting who have had difficulty securing permanent or even long-term employment in their fields. On the other end of the spectrum, it’s not uncommon for a seasoned professional with over twenty years’ experience in their field to go out on their own as a consultant. Academic job scarcity has been intensified during the era of “adjunctification”, which began back in the late 1980s and has reached epic proportions in the US and Canada. For every three retirements, a planning department may be able to hire one new assistant professor. Limited-term teaching-only contracts are now all the rage.

I worked short-term contracts in landscape architecture and public sector research before returning to graduate school, then kept at it during the six years it took to get my Masters and Ph.D. I decided to apply to the Ph.D. because I wanted to do research–not necessarily academic research, but I wanted to apply the methods I had learned in graduate school to help solve real world problems. With that end in sight, I tried to maintain my connection to the practice of planning by attending events hosted by the Planning Institute of British Columbia and met local planners at events hosted by the School of Community and Regional Planning. I also published three peer-reviewed publications, a book review, a couple of freelance articles, and hundreds of blog posts here.

During the final year of my Ph.D. I began looking for research contract work–it was 2010 and the US recession was in full swing. I knew that it could be some time before I found an academic position and in the meantime I wanted to keep doing research. I soon found a contract with a local non-profit working on a housing program evaluation, then another similar evaluation, and then a contract for a study on social enterprises in affordable housing. By this time I had finished my Ph.D. and was on the job market for the second time.

In the spring of 2012 I had a number of job interviews and that May I received three job offers within two weeks. The best of these was a two-year research position at the University of Amsterdam studying transit-oriented development. After careful consideration (it involved an international move, visas, and putting my possessions into storage while I was away), I decided to take the position.

During the two years in Amsterdam I taught a metropolitan transportation planning course and the masters research colloquium, conducted research on the iTOD project, met regularly with the project team from two other Dutch universities, organized a monthly meeting of transportation researchers in the department, and helped plan an international housing conference. I signed a contract with Oxford University Press for my first book, published three articles, an encyclopedia entry, a book review, and two freelance articles. I had five interviews with universities for tenure-track positions.

But despite all this, I found myself without a position at the end of my postdoc in the summer of 2014. I decided to regroup and focus my energies into planning practice–by then I had spent four years on the academic job search and I just wasn’t feeling it anymore. I returned to Toronto, where I’d lived during my undergraduate degree, and started a contract position at the provincial government. I had finished my required years of experience to become a professional planner, so I took the next step towards becoming a full member of the Canadian Institute of Planners. Planning faculty and friends (especially those who were now postdocs) kept encouraging me to apply to tenure-track positions, so I did. I had an interview in the spring of 2015, and after it was unsuccessful I got reckless. I applied to a couple of one-year positions. I was tired of interviewing–bone tired. I was tired of trying to downplay my academic expertise in public-sector interviews, and tired of downplaying my consulting expertise in academic interviews. I felt a surge of anger when anyone asked “But what do you want to do–be a professor or be a consultant?”, as if I had a choice in the matter.

Finally, the University of Oregon bit. The contract was in a planning program with a stellar reputation for experiential learning–the students work on real world projects, so my consulting experience was as valuable as my academic training. Spending nine months teaching, including designing a course where students worked with a municipality on their affordable housing plan, was valuable in so many ways. Not only did I hone my teaching skills with some of the best instructors I’ve ever met, but working at an American school somehow made me viable on the academic market.

Even as I decided, in the fall of 2015, to give it “one more go”, I knew that I’d likely be unsuccessful. In fact, a consultation with Kellee Weinhold from The Professor Is In reinforced that as a candidate who has been on the market for five years, my chances of getting a tenure-track job were next to nothing. She told me that schools prefer the linear career path: finish the PhD, get a tenure-track position where you will continue research on the same question(s). There is no tolerance for postdocs that diverge from the path or time spent working outside of academia, even though the market has basically eliminated the linear career trajectory. But despite her foreboding, I was offered six campus visit interviews across the US and Canada. I spent a total of 24 days travelling over three months, while teaching two courses. A few days after my last interview, I received the print copies of the book I’d begun working on back in 2012. A few weeks later, at the end of April 2016, I had two tenure-track job offers. I’m happy to announce that I will be starting at Dalhousie University in the School of Planning, Faculty of Architecture and Planning, on July 1st.

It’s the end of a five-year road that involved working in three countries, gambling on three short-term contracts, and buying/selling household goods innumerable times. Filing taxes in the US, Canada, and The Netherlands. Making lifelong friends who are now working in London, Birmingham, Amsterdam, Den Haag, Groningen, and Brisbane, and overjoyed to begin collaborating on research. It’s been a long road, and I certainly wouldn’t advise others to “keep applying” in perpetuity. People mean well, but there has to be a better solution than this. Not everyone can sacrifice this much–some of the best candidates out there may not be able to pick up and move to another country for a one- or two-year contract. At some point, most of us decide we want stable, well-paying jobs–we have to give up the endless annual cycle of applying and interviewing. We ask too much of our aspiring academics, and also our aspiring teachers, nurses, and accountants–much more than was ever demanded of the generations that came before. Eliminating the majority of long-term and permanent contracts, devaluing our skilled workforces, and discriminating against those whose career paths have been more erratic than linear (yet somehow stayed employed during one of the worst recessions in history) are not the answers to economic efficiency. We need to restore those long-term and permanent jobs that help guarantee more equitable workplaces, more productive employees, and more satisfied “clients”, whoever they may be. The University of Oregon, under new President Michael Schill, recently decided to hire 80 new tenure-track professors in the next five years to bring us up to a higher ratio of permanent to non-permanent faculty. I’d love to see other schools take similar approaches to fixing a problem that has strained the higher education system to the breaking point.

Book launch postcard-Vancouver

The results of a two-year partnership, My Health My Community, give us a lot of insight into Metro Vancouver’s active transportation trends: 43% of residents say their primary transportation mode is walking, cycling, or public transit.

Transportation agencies and municipal transit providers do a lot of their own research, but most of this is not open data and is summarized in publicly available reports. In the absence of Census data or a national transportation survey, transportation researchers often have to collect their own data. The My Health My Community study surveyed over 28,000 residents in Metro Vancouver on their primary mode of transportation, health outcomes, lifestyle behaviours and neighbourhood characteristics.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Active transportation users have lower body mass index, walk more each day, and are twice as likely to meet the requirement for 30 minutes or more of daily recommended walking
  • Car users with longer commute times have a lower sense of community belonging
  • Transit use is highest among lower income, visible minorities and recent immigrants–it is 69% lower among parents with dependent children and 70% lower among households with incomes of over $100,000 annually

Screen Shot 2015-04-29 at 4.23.42 PMAnother interesting result is shown on this map which depicts areas with higher than average active transportation (the darkest purple) in relation to existing and proposed transit infrastructure–and there is a second map showing the same for car users.

My Health My Community is a partnership between Vancouver Coastal Health, the Fraser Health, and the e-Health Strategy Office at the University of British Columbia.  The survey was conducted in 2013-2014 and the results are just beginning to be released. Dr. Jat Sandhu of Vancouver Coastal Health will be presenting the research tomorrow, April 30th at the SFU Segal School of Business, from 7:30-9:00.

Despite this warning, I’m throwing all caution to the wind and going home to Toronto. As my contract at the University of Amsterdam comes to an end in a couple of months, I am happy to be returning to Toronto to continue my career in urban planning. I think that my experiences here will help me to work with local planners, non-profits, and citizen groups to develop planning solutions to the complex problems that the City of Toronto currently faces.

Amsterdam and The Netherlands has a lot of lessons to teach about planning: anyone who is interested should check out the Municipality of Amsterdam‘s comprehensive research on air quality, traffic safety, spatial planning, and all sorts of other issues. Likewise, the national portal for spatial planning, Ruimtelijkeplannen.nl, allows you to find the spatial, zoning, provincial, and other plans for your neighbourhood and shows you how the national policies on planning apply. The Kennisinstituut voor Mobiliteitsbeleid (Institute for Transport Policy Analysis) does a yearly study of transportation patterns in all Dutch cities. These are the kinds of research and accessibility to information that we need so badly in Canadian cities, where all too often research on housing, transportation, and other critical urban issues is scattered and/or not publicly accessible.

But all is not perfect in the Land of Windmills and Olympic Speed Skaters. My work in TOD has shown how municipalities can identify their strengths and weaknesses in terms of actors, governance, and policies and use policies from other cities to inspire their own programs. In the Dutch context, some cities and regions have been better at others at collaborating, establishing informal networks, improving actor relationships, and developing a vision for the future. Amsterdam, in particular, does not have great relationships between the municipalities and the regions–there are unclear roles for the development industry and the national government in achieving policy innovation and change in TOD. While other cities and regions innovate, Amsterdam remains hesitant, the actors in planning processes stalled by inter-municipal competition and professional silos. Transportation planners don’t talk to spatial planners, and the public aren’t involved in the development of large-scale visions or ideas for the future. The longstanding resistance to “outside” ideas from other cities and countries is only just starting to break down. Does this sound familiar?

During my two years here, it’s become clear that the City of Toronto faces serious planning challenges as well. Toronto is no stranger to odd, melodramatic, and ineffective leadership at City Hall, but I will say this–my Dutch co-workers only asked about Toronto, or Canada, when Rob Ford started making headlines. Toronto residents, and indeed, international spectators, have been puzzled as to the consequences of such actions for a municipal leader. While no one person can be responsible for the problems of Canada’s largest city, the Toronto story demands the question, “Where is this city headed?” Do the municipalities and regional governments within the region have complementary goals? Do transportation plans from one city conflict with another? Are the actors involved clear on their roles in supporting compact growth and development? Is there a grand vision, and if so does the public support it? If you answered “no” to more than 2 of these questions…well, you see where this is headed.

Every city, every region, has its challenges. However, the lesson of The Netherlands is that challenges can be overcome through steady, ongoing collaborative efforts. At UBC, planners were taught that through communication and dialogue, residents, business owners, governments, and non-profit organizations alike would help contribute to better plans and policies. The process, as planning theorist John Friedmann would say, is integral to the success of the plan. The City of Vancouver has had great success in involving its residents in the development of neighbourhood plans and visions for the future. Above all, they have achieved a level of understanding of planning issues in the general public that I have not yet seen in any other city. I think that Toronto is ready to approach its challenges this way: through dialogue, through collaboration, through the development of a shared vision that will help shape the public understanding of planning goals and the public good. This is what I’d like to bring home with me: those of you in Toronto, I’m looking forward to working with you in June!

The Canadian Association of Postdoctoral Scholars has recently published a report on the state of the estimated 9,000 postdocs in the country. The report highlights postdocs as yet another highly-skilled but low-paid profession in a polarized labour market.

Their survey of 1,830 individuals at 130 universities showed an equal breakdown of men (53%) and women (46%) with an average age of 34. Over half of the postdocs in Canada are permanent residents (15%) or on work visas (38%). In the survey, 46% of respondents worked in the Life Sciences, 32.4% in Physical Sciences/Engineering, 13.7% in Social Sciences/Humanities and 8% in an Interdisciplinary field. Most postdocs were between 2-3 years in length.

Key concerns of Canadian postdocs are administrative ambiguity, low compensation and benefits, and insufficient training. These concerns arise from the unclear employment status of postdocs, who often exist in a hazy mid-ground between student and employee status, missing out on the benefits of both. With an average income of $40,000-45,000, less than half are satisfied with their salaries and only 29% are satisfied with their benefits. This has to do with the fact that postdocs are often paid through tax-exempt research fellowships, and therefore do not have access to Employment Insurance, maternity leave, or the Canadian Pension Plan. Although several universities, such as the University of Toronto, have now reclassified their postdocs as employees, others classify their postdocs as mere trainees, which contradicts the years of graduate school required to do research. This is very different from the situation in The Netherlands, where Ph.D.s and postdocs alike are classified as employees with corresponding salary scales and benefits. Foreigners are even able to apply for a lower tax status (the 30% tax rule) as postdocs.

While postdocs used to be viewed as short-term stepping stones to full-time academic positions, this is no longer the case. Nearly one-quarter of the survey respondents said their career goals had changed since starting their position, with the most common explanation being the unfavourable job market. As most postdocs will not obtain faculty positions (unless there’s a significant increase in the number of positions for new faculty), postdocs have identified the need for training that will help them succeed in non-academic settings. This includes grant/proposal writing, project management, group or lab management, and negotiating skills, among others.

The survey was supported by MITACS, a national not-for-profit organization that supports national innovation by coordinating collaborative industry-university research projects involving graduate students and postdoctoral fellows. To download the survey, click here.

Many have argued for broader public access to academic research. Few, however, considered it as important as internet activist Aaron Swartz. The 26-year-old programmer pushed to make publications free to the public, including those held in the American repository for judicial documents (PACER, Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and JSTOR, which distributes scientific and literary journals on a subscription basis. Swartz was found dead in his apartment on Friday January 11th.

Traditional academic journals hold a prestigious position: faculty members are required to “publish or perish” and universities alone can pay their high subscription fees. In the internet era of free and widespread information, journals remain an almost impenetrable fortress with access granted to a small percentage of the population. Yet, academic research is in many cases funded by national governments and public agencies–in Canada, two main source of funding are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Is it fair to publish the results of publicly funded research in journals to which only current university students and faculty have access? In fields like planning, which stress public participation and community dialogue, this is a major concern. Open Access journals have begun to address this, but with faculty tenure decisions hinging upon journal impact factors, publishing in traditional journals is still the desired option for most faculty members and graduate students.

Fighting against these restricted databases was Aaron Swartz, who used his programming skills as a weapon in the fight for public access to information. In 2008, believing that the PACER legal documents should be free to the public since they’re produced with public funds, he created a program to download millions of documents from free library accounts. The government did not press charges in that case, but it did three years later. Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 after an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR. He had downloaded nearly its entire library of publications–4.8 million documents in total. He faced a potential penalty of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would increase public access to its journal articles, giving limited free access to its over 1200 journals. Now anyone can sign up for an account and access up to three articles for free every two weeks. It’s an improvement on JSTOR’s Register and Read program, which saw 150,000 people register for free access to 76 journals during its 10-month pilot test. This month, JSTOR began allowing subscription-holding universities to give alumni access to their journals, following Sage Publications. The top 100 editors of Wikipedia will now also receive free access to JSTOR’s collection.

Is JSTOR’s recent–although limited–move toward public access the result of Swartz’s actions? Or was such a move inevitable in the internet era? Years from now, those of us in academia may well remember Swartz as an internet crusader who offered the public its first glimpse through the cracks in the armour surrounding academic journals.

I’m pleased to announce the call for papers for my upcoming edited book on Canadian planning. It’s been accepted by Oxford University Press with the working title Planning Canada: A Case Study Approach and will feature case studies from across Canada on issues as diverse as infrastructure planning, food policy, affordable housing, and natural resource planning. We’re hoping to give undergraduate students an understanding of the diverse plans, policies and processes that are happening right now across the country.

I’m looking forward to receiving proposals from interested authors from academic, public, private practice, and non-profit planning settings in a number of theme areas: for more details about these, check out the dedicated page on my site, www.renthomas.ca/publications/books

Proposals are due February 1, 2013 and selected authors will have until December 1, 2013 to finalize their case studies.