Let the e-Spring begin

Up-and-coming techie, Aaron Swartz,killed his 26-year-old self out of despair. He was only days away from facing up to 35 years in jail.

For what crime was he going to get 35 years? Rape? no, 35 years is too long for rape (the average serves 5.4 years). Manslaughter? Nope. 35 years is too long for manslaughter. It's long enough for first-degree murder, but Aaron didn't murder anyone. Swartz's crime was to download a huge number of scientific papers with the intention to give them away for free to the world.

If you want to be on the cutting edge of a scientific field, you have to read a lot of papers. For most of modern history there has been only one way to get these papers -- through extremely expensive subscriptions. This is known as a "pay wall." The average person could never afford enough subscriptions to stay informed. Universities pay for them so that their researchers and students can access this knowledge. We think of scientific knowledge as being freely shared by the world. It is shared, but it's not free.

Swartz wasn't stealing from the authors of those papers (they weren't paid when they relinquished the copyright on their papers). He wasn't even stealing from the peer-reviewers (they weren't paid either). He believed that this scientific knowledge belonged to all mankind. For this he faced a sentence appropriate for murder. Swartz killed himself out of despair. He was depressed, but I also suspect he felt his sentence was extremely unfair. His story reminds me of Mohamed Bouazizi . Bouazizi was the Tunisian street vendor who killed himself in a moment of devastating frustration at the pure injustice applied to him. Other Tunisians took his death to heart. Bouazizi was a spark. He ignited the Arab Spring.

There are many people who share Swartz's values but have different strategies. The desire for open-access science was behind the creation of arXiv.org , PLoS, Academia.edu, Google Scholar, ResearchGate, and Mendeley . Many now say it is "immoral" to hide scientific and mathematical knowledge behind a paywall. It certainly feels unjust that we would have to pay many thousands to read about the research we already paid for with our own taxes.

In their defense, renowned peer reviewed journals such as Nature and Science are respected for a reason. They can literally make a scientists career, and this is no accident. Through many decades of hard work and high standards, they have established themselves as curators of sound science. The human race needs this. There is a place for these organizations, but perhaps they can exist without such a high paywall.

The death of Swartz hasn't sparked any riots, yet, but a number of voices have coalesced around this case -- voices like US Representative Zoe Lofgren. His death has sparked countless blogs and tweets. It has sparked me.


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One Response to “Let the e-Spring begin”

  1. Khalil A. Cassimally Reply | Permalink

    Nice post, Graham. I do think that open access will gradually take over. Slowly but surely. Publishers such as Frontiers and PLOS are pushing it further and taking the movement more and more mainstream, and importantly, to the younger generation of scientists who may be more receptive to the concept. NPG is also beginning to move in the open access direction. Its journal, Nature Communications--its first foray into open access--is now over one or two years old and already has a very good impact factor, which shows that it's getting some love. NPG's second open access journal, Scientific Reports is also doing quite well considering the media coverage some of its papers receive.

    So, all in all, open access bodes well.

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