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Looking back on coining a viral hashtag + behavioural economics argument about tweeting

– You get to see it mentioned on almost every major online news source (NYTimes, FT, BBC, Washington Post, CNN, NBC, CBC, Al Jazeera, Bloomberg, Businessweek, FastCompany, Huffington Post, SFGate, The Daily Beast, Slate…), almost every major tech source (TechCrunch, Gizmodo, Arstechnica, CNET, PCMagazine…) and some cool ones like Nature’s blog, the Chronicle of Higher Education and Wikipedia!
– You meet a great group of people.
– Long-lost friends and acquaintances get in touch.
– You get a better understanding of how journalism works.

– You get a better understanding of how journalism works (just joking!).
– It really screws with the results that appear if someone googles you. I have done more things than coin a hashtag, people.
– You get almost no sleep for several days.

I alluded to this before: I have a lot of things depending on me that are not this. I’m not the one to carry on the fight, though I may post from time to time about it.

Finally: tweeting can’t be the end, but it’s a very good start. Apart from the arguments previously posted, there’s a behavioural economics literature that says that when people commit to something publicly, they are more likely to do it. I hope the tens of thousands of people who tweeted about #pdftribute continue to feel a connection to the movement, keep sharing their papers and keep pressing the system to change.

(NB: Since there might also be an “I already did my part” effect, the effects of tweeting could in principle go either way, but that’s my bet.)

Some concrete things coming out of #pdftribute

#pdftribute as a hashtag is dying down, but several concrete endeavours are arising from many good people who were involved in or motivated by it.

Here are a couple of initiatives about which I am aware (merely curating; this does not count as an endorsement):

1) The Papester Collective. Need to get behind a paywall? Send a tweet.

2) Github for research. Searchable paper repository. Easy upload, perhaps with a tweet. Brought to you by a collaboration of the people behind pdftribute.net, http://edward.io/pdftribute, @tmccormick, @thejbf, and @mrgunn at Mendeley.

Some people have argued that since these kinds of ventures don’t change the underlying incentives for academics to publish in top journals, they won’t change the system. I beg to differ. You don’t need to change the academics’ incentives to publish in top journals. You need to change their incentives to share their papers regardless or to have others share their papers regardless. For example, it is usually perfectly fine to share late stage working papers, which many already do to help others gain access to their findings without being stuck at a paywall. These kinds of sharing mechanisms could in principle work, just as Napster changed the music industry.

Here are some other ideas from the comments received on twitter. What are your comments?

On ownership, or the lack thereof

I want it to be clear that pdftribute is not “my” movement. It isn’t really anyone’s movement per se – if it were anyone’s, it probably wouldn’t be a movement!

My involvement has been: thinking to put out the initial tweet, publicizing it, creating the hashtag #pdftribute, based on a suggestion by @venturejessica, collecting the stream of tweets and sharing it for others to scrape, and tweeting like hell for the past 48 hours or whatever (despite unreliable wifi).

Everyone else has also put in a lot. @venturejessica came up with #pdftributetoaaronswartz and got interest from Anonymous, which really helped get this off the ground. Micah Allen had suggested something similar on reddit, which might have helped it be picked up later. Thousands of people tweeting on the internet contributed as much as anyone else. The pdftribute.net guys have really been great – and now Edward Wang and James Change answered the call to scrape the pdfs from the tweets and have made them available here.

1) The kid in me has to say: SO COOL.

2) I didn’t think, when making my pledge, that it would develop into anything this big. It just seemed like a no-brainer; the completely obvious thing to do. It’s not clear yet how things will develop from here, but now that so many people are taking part and carrying this on in so many ways (and there is plenty of chatter – let me know if you would like to join the conversation), I will happily recuse myself to focus on my other endeavours. Movements like this don’t need a founder. They outlast any of us.

Twitter repository for #pdftribute

Update #1: Now with ~30,000 tweets!
Update #2: Now with ~40,000 tweets!
Update #3: Now with ~50,000 tweets!

You may be following pdftribute.net, which is a great initiative to scrape the #pdftribute links as they stream. I am posting a more comprehensive repository (to be updated regularly) which people can download to start doing their own analyses. (Edit: this one has about 50,000 tweets, whereas I believe pdftribute.net is based off around 10,000, having started the streaming later? Could be wrong.)

Early on, I was watching TweetReach to see how many tweets would show up in an API search. When it hit 1,500 tweets, I started tracking #pdftribute as it streamed as a public service (“twitter dump.csv” in the zip file) and also did an API search for those first 1,500 tweets (“early twitter dump.csv”). In this way, I think I’ve captured almost all the tweets, though may have missed a few of the early ones.

The tracking is still going on. Will continue to update.

If you can extract the links to files from the repository, please email me so I can upload the files themselves!

Thank you all very much for your support!


Update: As I type this, we’re approaching 40 mil impressions, 15k tweets with the hashtag #pdftribute.

I would really like for this to not be a flash-in-the-pan protest. I am sure that as the days pass, tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow, #pdftribute will quickly die down.

We don’t yet know what will arise out of it. Can I suggest that if you want to be apprised of the fall-out, you follow @pdftribute on twitter? Following anyone involved (e.g. myself @evavivalt, @venturejessica, @neuroconscience… the list goes on, as this is a community effort now) will surely get you updates, but what I am thinking of is for people who just want a rare, curated update. Thanks so much for contributing to this project! Aaron’s death was a tragedy, and I hope that as we try to move forward, we don’t forget the brilliant man who started it all.

This is the first thing I’ve been associated with which has really gone viral. The closest before that was the Kickstarter for AidGrade, which did get picked up by Freakonomics and Marginal Revolution, among others, but didn’t get tweeted around like there was no tomorrow.

Aaron Swartz’s death affected me like it did so many people. After I started to tweet this to people, Jessica Richman, who is much more twitter-savvy than me, suggested using the hashtag #pdftributetoaaronswartz, which I then suggested shortening to #pdftribute. We both tweeted and tweeted, and others also joined in and tweeted and tweeted, and Anonymous picked it up, and it’s really taken off! So far we’re at over 3.5 million impressions, over 500 tweets per hour. I don’t feel like this process is “owned” by anyone. So many people have contributed so much, and it clearly has struck a chord for a reason.

Where will this go? Well, maybe someone can scrape the pdfs together into a repository. Maybe #pdftribute can be a pledge to avoid paywalls in the future. Maybe we can push journals for more change. JSTOR’s gradual opening has been heartening, but there is still more to do. Would welcome thoughts or suggestions in the comments or on twitter.

P.S. Let me use the opportunity to point people towards AidGrade’s job openings. Deadline is Jan. 18! Please pass on to anyone you know who is interested in international development.