Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Monday, January 14, 2013

Aaron Swartz

I've written before about open access, perhaps to a degree obsessively, and I try not to repeat myself too much here (which is getting difficult as the years go on, to be sure). But I do have to take this occasion to once again say how very important is this issue, how very fundamental to what ought to be the ethic of science.

Some readers may be fully involved in this issue, may completely understand what was at stake for this young man who took his own life this weekend, and why he did the deed that had MIT and the U.S. attorney pursuing him like the furies, trying to destroy his life and career by imprisoning him for 35 years. Here's his manifesto.

In my own words, subscriptions to scientific journals cost hundreds of dollars a year -- or more. In fact, the library at my own elite Ivy League university has cancelled many of them recently because we can't afford it. Nevertheless, we still have thousands of journal subscriptions and I get to read them all because I have the magical powers of a college professor in a wealthy country at a wealthy university. You, however -- be you the common rabble in our wealthy country, or an academic department chair in Kenya or the Dominican Republic, do not get to read them. Most of the research that they publish was paid for by taxpayers, but it does not belong to the taxpayers. It belongs to people who own for-profit academic publishing companies, that in turn sell it -- for their own profit -- only to those institutions that can afford the exorbitant prices their monopoly power enables them to charge.

This is wrong. Scientific knowledge is the common property of humanity. The right way to do this is to include the cost of publication in the original grant that funds the research. That's how the Public Library of Science, BMJ Open Access, Dove Press, Biomed Central, and other completely legitimate open access scientific publishers work. Yes, we pay them to publish our stuff, but they still have rigorous peer review and high editorial standards -- higher, in fact, than the subscription model publishers in many cases. The reason for that is obvious: they have to spend the money on editorial costs instead of lining their owners' pockets; they have to compete for the best research because the people who do that excellent research are paying for publication; and they have to prove their quality and integrity every day. Best of all, everybody in the world with an Internet connection can read the work.

Mr. Swartz downloaded thousands of copyrighted academic publications from an archive called JStor. But he didn't try to sell them, he just tried to make a point. Knowledge belongs to humanity. For this, the U.S. Attorney and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology hounded him to death. Rapists and murderers don't get 35 years.

Update:  In response to an anonymous commenter, I should also add that I, like almost all researchers, freely share my own work with anyone who asks for it. You can go to my academic web page, see my publications, and if you send me an e-mail, you'll get the PDF. That's just one more thing that's ridiculous about this entire issue.


Anonymous said...

Not sure if you frequent the twitter universe, but there has been a very visceral reaction to Aaron's passing. Researchers are responding by posting PDFs of their copyrighted published research under the #pdftribute hash. A link scraper has been set up at

robin andrea said...

If anything good can come of Aaron Swartz's death it will be the open access to science journals. It is unfathomably sad and was unconscionably cruel that he was subjected to such insane prosecutorial over-reach and judicial bullying. It is true that rapists and murderers don't get the kind of sentence that was being bandied about for his "crimes." I can only hope that the attorney general and prosecutor are haunted forever by what they have done.

Anonymous said...

About 15 years ago I was the head (non-librarian) of the Board that supervised two very large academic libraries in a rich country.

I was quite low-profile and some said ineffective.

Besides the problems we dealt with day to day - and libraries and academe are the weirdest places - from investigating tunnels for book storage (too damp and too much organic material, dry skeletons OK), stolen first editions (an organized minor mafia type ring which we took down), lawsuits up the wazzoo, a secret investigation into occult links between book sellers and library staff, a study of exchange rates impact on book buying policy, denouncing bills for helicopters (yes big wigs fly like that), effecting new legislation which protects the privacy of book-borrowers (this was a MAJ~OR deal that occupied lawyers for a year), dealing with sexual harrassment, .... etc. and cheats (Photocopy cos. that overcharged, security cos that billed for BS work as the ‘State’ could, would, pay) and endless architectural changes to allow longer opening hours, checking for entry and exit, which involves stairs, doors, new floors, electronics, control. I remember one meet at midnight - everyone is falling asleep - how can the med students access this data? Well they can’t that is it. Ok that is dramatized, fond memories, make good stories.

I fought for open access whenever I could.

The point is, all this is so complex, change has to come from outside pressure. Libraries (the main buyers of Scientific Journals, in Europe, paid for by the tax payer) can’t realistically resist, or even bargain, because the models of functioning are so different.

Scientific journals, peer reviewed, etc. are a HUGE lucrative business. IMMENSE. (Held by the USA and GB in the main.) This is why the backlash and ‘prosecutions’ etc. are so severe - it is not just an academic quarrel about rights or small monies or recognition for authors or of public access (which would be minor for a long time) but the protection of unimaginable rentier bucks who hold, and aim to keep hold, of information.

JSTOR ...well...I’d best keep my mouth shut. I’m still alive and aim to remain so.

In the case of Aaron, MIT is more culpable imho.