#PDFtribute, Aaron Swartz, and the need to fight for open access in academic publishing
Three days ago, internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself, as has been reported widely across social and traditional media. He killed himself on the second anniversary of being arrested for having downloaded thousands of academic articles from JSTOR via a laptop hidden in a supply closet and connected to MIT’s open network. The trial was due to begin next month, and Aaron was defending himself against no less than 13 felony charges, looking at 35 years in prison and fines of over a million dollars. He never actually published the articles he downloaded.
You can read a lot more about Aaron Swartz, the charges against him and his illustrious history of building technologies and systems we rely upon in social media and traditional media (I recommend Lawrence Lessig’s accusation of the prosecution as bullies, danah boyd’s thoughts about why more people didn’t speak in his support before his death, the expert witness for Aaron’s defence explaining how trumped up the case appeared to be, Cory Doctorow’s memorial to him, NRK’s piece describing much of the background and the New York Times piece describing how people have rallied around his causes after his death. I actually had dinner with Aaron once, ten years ago, at Mark Bernstein’s house in a snowstorm. I remember him from that night just as that really, really smart kid, but later followed his work on RSS, and his innovative analysis of Wikipedia edits allowing him to show who actually writes the Wikipedia. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t read about the charges against him until this weekend.
This weekend, though, so much was said about Aaron and about open access. #PDFtribute is a Twitter hashtag where researchers have been putting articles online and posting links to Twitter with the label #PDFtribute. A dedicated website is archiving them all. My papers are all openly available already. When I have published in closed journals I have requested permission to also put a copy on my website and in BORA, and I’ve always received permission, though sometimes with an embargo where I have to wait a few months after publication. My books aren’t open access, though, and next time I publish a book I will try to find an open alternative.
It seems terrible that it took Aaron’s death to raise awareness of the ridiculous enforcement of copyright, to the extent that the government threatens a kid who downloaded too many academic papers from JSTOR with a punishment fit for terrorism. Of course it’s not the first time. There have been many waves in our growing acceptance of and push for open access to research. Last year over 13000 researchers (including 13 from UiB) declared they would boycott Elsevier, the British government required all research funded by Research Councils UK to be published in open access channels from April 2013, and 162 universities require (or, uh, in UiB’s case, gently request) their researchers to publish in open access channels or place a copy of publications in an open access repository like BORA.
Open access to research publications is one of the most important research policy questions internationally today. We need to push nationally and internationally for governments and professional organisations to require open access publication, and perhaps national copyright law needs to be changed to ensure that publicly funded research is available to the public.
Changing our awareness – as Aaron Swartz’s death has tragically done – is just as important. If every scholar in the world required open access, there would be no problem. I wonder how many employees of the University of Bergen actually know that we are “requested” to publish in open access channels? I wonder how many researchers know that open access publications are cited more, as Dag W. Aksnes, leader of the UiB bibliometry research group recently explained to a seminar (Here’s a video of his talk, starting just after 01:26 hours into the video)? I wonder how many of us know that almost all journals – even closed journals – will accept a scholar’s publishing a copy freely online?
This is something I obviously care deeply about personally and professionally. If our team for leading UiB is elected (follow us on Facebook!) I will work to improve open access scholarship at UiB and in Norway too. Heck, obviously I’ll be working for that whether or not we’re elected. Of course.