Aaron Swartz: Opening access to knowledge
By Pamela Samuelson, San Francisco Chronicle
What was Internet activist Aaron Swartz thinking when he downloaded 4 million articles from JSTOR (short for journal storage), a digital library of scholarly articles, in a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology?
Because of his suicide this month, we will never know for sure, but one consistent theme ran through his short but brilliant career: The Internet provides amazing opportunities to open more access to knowledge. And he wanted to help that process.
He did so through his work on the RSS (Rich Site Summary) Web-syndication protocol, building essential technology for the copyright open-licensing project, Creative Commons, and his activism against the Stop Online Piracy Act, which would have authorized blocking access to Internet sites that were alleged to be hosting infringing materials.
He faced quite a hurdle in opening access to academic works: For almost all academic and scientific research, the public is asked to pay for it essentially twice. First, when government agencies or public universities sponsor the research, and a second time, when users must pay for access to the article, often via subscribing to a journal. Subscription fees often amount to tens of thousands of dollars. And most of those journals do not pay the authors; instead, they keep the fees as profits.
There are many good reasons to think that access to the articles that Swartz downloaded should be more open than they were. First, many JSTOR articles were funded through research grants from governments and foundations. Swartz might have thought the public already had paid for much of this once and shouldn't have to pay again.
Second, even those articles not directly funded by public monies were written mostly by university professors (often at publicly funded institutions) whose salaries covered the costs of their creation. These authors were typically paid nothing for transferring rights to the publishers and get nothing from JSTOR.
Third, the JSTOR articles were written by scholars to advance knowledge. If Creative Commons had been in existence when the overwhelming majority of these articles were written (that is, before 2002), their scholar authors might well have chosen to make them available on open-access license terms, as many do today. Swartz could have thought this option should apply retroactively.
Fourth, since the articles were first published many years ago, whatever commercial value they had when hot off the presses has long since dissipated. Publishers already have recouped their investments by publishing the journals, so restricting access to them now seems like a bad idea.
Fifth, what was valuable in the articles was the knowledge they contained. As a society, we want wider access to that knowledge because it will lead to further creative work and learning. As an Internet activist and visionary, Swartz understood the Internet's potential to radically reduce the costs of providing global access to knowledge - so long as unnecessary restrictions do not stand in the way.
JSTOR has provided an important service to academic and other research communities by scanning back issues of journals and offering subscriptions to research institutions so that students, professors and other members of research communities can access electronically the literature of their fields. But this storehouse of knowledge is not as openly available as Swartz apparently thought it should be.
Under vague wire-fraud and computer-abuse laws, federal prosecutors decided to charge him with 13 felony offenses. They insisted that Swartz plead guilty to all charges and do some time in jail. Otherwise, they would proceed to trial and seek at least seven years in prison. This course of action is difficult to understand, given that JSTOR had asked federal prosecutors to drop the charges against Swartz after he gave back the downloaded material, paid some compensation and apologized.
There was a time when access to knowledge was promoted through grants of copyrights to authors who typically transferred them to publishers. Now copyright has become the single most serious impediment to access to knowledge. Academic authors, among others, should use the Internet as a medium through which access to knowledge can be greatly expanded. They should choose open-access options for scholarly work, press JSTOR and other publishers to make more of their backlist materials available and support open-access repositories and the creation of a Digital Public Library of America through which more than just public-domain materials can be made available.
Swartz showed poor judgment when he downloaded JSTOR articles, but his mission to promote broader access to knowledge remains a worthy goal.1/25/2013