Academic journal fingerprints PDF files to prevent free use of its documents

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When primary sources are paid for, the public is forced to take secondary interpretations at face value

In public libraries, information is really free. And private. In many ways, libraries are the ancestors of privacy, and perhaps its greatest advocates. The books you consult are exclusively your business, unless you choose to post a photo of the last pages of infinity joke to prove you’ve actually read it, recommend the latest Sally Rooney to your single women’s book club, or accessorize it with a vintage copy of Dunes as a mark that your sci-fi interests extend beyond the screen. Librarians live under the same code of confidentiality as doctors and lawyers: if you watch a self-help tape on how to start your love life, it’s between you and the guy behind the counter (who will play it without judgement). But in an age where information is largely digital, free public library cards are being replaced by enticing college studies with paywalls and research hyperlinked to even more paywalls.

It seems that digitally hosted information often not only comes at a price, but also compromises the privacy of those who choose to pay said price. After having been exposed on Twitter by an independent researcher, Elsevier, one of the world’s largest publishers of academic papers, has admitted to adding a unique fingerprint to every PDF uploaded by its users. Elsevier said Vice“The identifier in the PDF helps prevent cybersecurity risks to our systems and those of our customers – there is no metadata, PII [Personal Identifying Information], or personal data captured by them. Fingerprinting PDF files allows us to identify potential sources of threats so that we can notify our customers to act accordingly. This approach is commonly used in the academic publishing industry.

Elsevier’s history of lawsuits against those who hack and share paid articles suggests that this outside commitment to their users’ cybersecurity may in fact be a mask of surveillance. Perhaps instead of pursuing raw legal fees to sue those who try to equalize access to primary sources (which has led universities to boycott Elsevier, which then loses even more money), the publisher would be better off raising funds to subsidize subscription fees or develop an access program for low-income users.

The information we currently consume is largely filtered by media conglomerates and so-called expert commentators. When a news giant shares what could be fake news referencing a paid source, a reader with access to the hyperlinked study can form their own opinion. If this access is restricted, they trust the giant. I can say with some certainty that people are more likely to verify their news sources if they don’t have to pay to verify them. Second-hand accounts can be useful for breaking down academic jargon and giving the busy reader a highlight reel, but equalizing access to information produces stronger grounds for debate and dilutes the potency of powerful secondary sources. algorithmically.

It seems almost absurd that so much paid content is produced by universities who then pay to bring down that paywall for students whose tuition then goes up for such subscriptions. (Yes, that’s a gross oversimplification of what’s going on, but you know what I mean.) How can we continue to complain about the complete idiocy of our country when there are obvious solutions? Free Community College! Free Trade Schools! Add financial literacy and how to navigate government resources to high school curricula! At the very least, make the information free and accessible.

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