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Aaron Swartz committed suicide earlier this month at 26. Mr. Swartz was facing time in jail and a possible $1-million fine as a result of being prosecuted for breaking into MIT’s computers to download millions of articles from JSTOR, an online academic database. (NOAH BERGER/Reuters)
Aaron Swartz committed suicide earlier this month at 26. Mr. Swartz was facing time in jail and a possible $1-million fine as a result of being prosecuted for breaking into MIT’s computers to download millions of articles from JSTOR, an online academic database. (NOAH BERGER/Reuters)

Education Memo

Aaron Swartz: A Julian Assange for the academic crowd Add to ...

A few days ago, I learned about a controversy in the study of sauropod dinosaurs. Were their elongated necks a result of sexual selection or were long necks useful for accessing more food? The latest research suggests the answer is the latter. Is a reader better off for knowing that? For an activist group of academics – one of whom posted his article on the sauropods free online – the answer is a resolute yes. For years, they have been fighting to liberate scholarship from the confines of subscription-based academic journals by throwing up their journal articles on the Web without a fee.

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Now the movement has found a martyr in Aaron Swartz, who committed suicide earlier this month at age 26. Mr. Swartz was facing jail time and a $1-million fine as a result of being prosecuted for breaking into MIT’s computers to download millions of articles from JSTOR, an online academic database. By early last week, thousands of academics were posting their thoughts and research papers on Twitter and collecting the links on pdftribute.net,a website created in Mr. Swartz’s memory.

Unlike the divisive figure of Julian Assange, Mr. Swartz never publicly distributed the articles he had downloaded through a mix of a software hack and the lo-fi hijinks of attaching a hard drive to an MIT computer. Dubbed Commons Man by the Economist, Swartz was an advocate for the Creative Commons model of authorship where creators choose to give away their work for free.

Academia is the natural place to apply the Creative Commons ethic, argues Mira T. Sundara Rajan, formerly the Canada Research Chair in Intellectual Property Law and author of Moral Rights, a book about technology and copyright. For musicians, artists or authors, the free-is-best mantra is a recipe for poverty, she says. Most academics, however, are already paid by their institutions, she argues; the profits from charging for their work accrue to companies that create databases not to the creators themselves.

The worth of all this data might seem questionable – crowdsourcing bibliographies (Mr. Swartz famously liberated the bibliographic database of all the holdings of the Library of Congress) – does not seem to have the same potential for investigative payoff as wading through U.S. Army documents. The principle is the thing. Mike Taylor (the zoology liberator) expresses the sentiment concisely: Hiding your research behind a paywall is immoral.

Publishing in a journal that charges fees (and steep ones at that, Nature wants $32 U.S. for a piece on kids’ dental anxiety, for example) locks up research that was often conducted with public funds.

In a recent blog, Timothy Burke, a history professor at Swarthmore College, questioned why any academics are still sitting on the fence. Disagreement over liberating journal articles, Dr. Burke explained in an e-mail conversation, is a “proxy battleground” over who guards the gates of academia. Editorial board committees make decisions based on the worth of an article, sure, but are also swayed by what they think readers want, by complicated relationships with contributors, universities, geographical distribution concerns and so on. Still, even an opaque system is still a system. What would transparency look like?

One of the most popular models is that offered by Plosone.org, which charges authors to publish their articles and have them reviewed by peers. The public can read and comment on every work free.

Open access for academics could open the cloisters of the university to the popularity contests of the Net. A few Jared Diamonds dominating, with access to lucrative book or speaking gigs, while the vast majority duke it out for scraps of eyeballs or turn into itinerant teachers, singing for their reputations one small-town library lecture at a time. Still, as academic journals are replaced by freebies, expect the dino specialists to give Megan Fox profile writers a run for their money.

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