In Memoriam: Aaron Swartz and the Fight for Open Access



Two years ago a young computer programmer and internet activist named Aaron Swartz hid a laptop in a closet at an MIT library, where he used the university’s license to download 4.8 million articles from JSTOR, a subscription-based online archive of academic journal articles. His use of a simple script to automate this process and a few tricks to outsmart JSTOR’s efforts to block his computer got the Secret Service interested, and the federal investigation that followed resulted in his arrest. Despite JSTOR’s decision not to press charges, the government went after Swartz for 13 felony count hacking charges that could have carried a prison sentence of 35 years and millions of dollars in fines.

Last Friday that young man killed himself. No note was found, but it’s hard to imagine the impending federal trial not playing a role in his decision to take his life. While the details of Swartz’s actions and the legal battle that followed have been extensively covered elsewhere, this seems an appropriate time to consider the right of access to scientific information and the consequences of restricting access to those who can pay.

A large part of science is what happens after the experiments have been done. Publication in a peer-reviewed journal is crucial to ensure that studies have been designed, conducted, and analyzed properly, and that the conclusions made from the research are sound. After an article has been reviewed and accepted for publication, the scientist that performed the research must pay a hefty fee to the journal for publication costs and sign away his copyright to the article that he has written.

It is at this point where the flow of information gets complicated. With new research locked behind a paywall, only those with enough money or the right connections can read them. Because I work for a university that pays for access to thousands of journals, I don’t personally have to shoulder these fees. So when a friend asks me if a chiropractor can help with tinnitus (no) or if St. John’s Wort can really help with depression (yes), I can find the information I need to answer these questions without quickly burning through my paycheck. Without an institutional subscription, I’d be stuck paying about $30 per article. While prices like that are certainly a lot for an individual, even universities like Harvard are saying that they can’t afford all of the subscriptions they need.

The past decade has seen the emergence and success of several open access journals, and some subscription-based journals now offer the option of open access for an additional fee. In 2008 a new law required that all taxpayer-funded research in the United States be made available for free within 12 months of publication. These are all strides in the right direction, but the fight for open access has not yet been won. Restrictions are still imposed on older articles as well as those hot off the press, and policies regulating public access to research vary by country. And progress towards open access has its enemies -- last year publishers even pushed for a bill to overturn the public access mandate of 2008.

In Swartz’s 2008 manifesto he wrote, “There is no justice in following unjust laws. It’s time to come into the light, and in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.” Our generation has lost a great mind, but his cause is not forgotten. Since his death, researchers in a variety of fields have been making their work available for free online as a tribute to Swartz and his commitment to information activism. In that spirit, let's go forth and share knowledge.

Photo by Sage Ross (Flickr: Boston Wiki Meetup), used under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike license CC-BY-SA-2.0.



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