Aaron Swartz and Open Access
Just time for a very brief comment about the tragic death, apparently by his own hand, of Aaron Swartz on Friday. For those of you who haven’t followed the story, or perhaps don’t even know who he was, Aaron Swartz was an “internet activist” and leading champion of the open data movement. He was a young man, only 26 when he died, who was prepared to fight for a cause he truly believed in. And to die for it.
Aaron Swartz was being prosecuted for alleged illegal downloads of scientific papers from the JSTOR system so he could make them available to the public. If convicted he would have faced a sentence of up to 35 years in prison.
Whether his prosecution was according to the letter of the law is a question I’ll leave for others to discuss. I’ll just say that it’s profoundly objectionable that the papers in the JSTOR are behind a paywall in the first place, just another example of how the academic publishing industry now actively stifles the free communication of scientific ideas and results that it purports to facilitate.
Aaron Swartz was a controversial character, but I know I’m not alone in thinking that his prosecution was at the least heavy-handed and at the worst downright vindictive. Academics have been using the hashtag #PDFtribute on Twitter to pay tribute to his courage and to follow his example by posting their own research publicly free of charge.
Astronomers have making their results available in this way for years, through the arXiv. We have also been paying through the nose for subscriptions to journals that do little more than duplicate the arXiv submission at such a prohibitive cost for access that the public can’t access them. In future we’re supposed to pay huge fees up front to academic publishing houses, to duplicate the arXiv in a different but equally pointless way. Pointless, that is, from any perspective other than their own profits.
As regular readers of this blog will know, I’ve suggested a way to bypass traditional journals and achieve a form of publication that is both open to all and run at a minimal cost to authors. That will be going on-line in the not-too-distant future. One thing remaining to be resolved is the name for the new system. I still haven’t decided on that, but at least I now know to whose name it will be dedicated.
R.I.P. Aaron Swartz (1986-2013).Follow @telescoper