Before last Friday, Aaron Swartz faced up to 35 years in prison. His crime was using MIT computers to illegally download large volumes of academic papers from the JSTOR digital library, intending to make them freely available to the public.
Tragically, the 26-year-old web pioneer committed suicide
last Friday, but no one knows all of the factors that triggered his suicide. Nonetheless, his death has invigorated and infuriated many in the open-access movement.
On Sunday, the hacker group Anonymous posted messages
on MIT's website, calling for more leniency in computer crime laws and a "guerrilla" open access push. Their claims and demands regarding open-access, in particular, over-simplify a complex topic.
Before we address Anonymous's claims, here's a few disclaimers:
- The American Physical Society (a non-profit scientific society that publishes physics research articles) supports Physics Central and the Physics Buzz blog.
- JSTOR's digital library does not contain any APS journals, according to a search of the index.
Now here's what Anonymous had to say about open-access.
In one of the posted messages on MIT's website, Anonymous claimed:
"The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations."
Afterward, there was a call to arms:
"We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access."
Anonymous fails to address the fact that many scientific publishers are not greedy corporations solely focused on profiting off of the American taxpayer. Rather, non-profit scientific societies such as the American Geophysical Union, the American Chemical Society, and the American Physical Society (who supports the Physics Central website) publish some of the most well-respected journals in their respective fields.
Additionally, many of these non-profit organizations have embraced aspects of open-access in an effort to spread the knowledge of science. APS, for instance, has provided free access to all of its journal archives to all high schools
and local libraries
in the U.S.
Simply freeing all of this information without any way to pay for it, however, is ill-conceived. Compiling and validating scientific research — a task traditionally granted to academic journals — comes with a price. For scientific societies, much of the money gained through library journal subscriptions pays for this process of peer-review and publishing.
Also, many scientific societies fund public outreach efforts in an effort to engage and educate the public. Physics Central represents one such effort.
What about other scientific publishers? Many other publishers are, in fact, for-profit corporations. The company behind perhaps the most prominent interdisciplinary journal — Nature
— profits off of its publishing business. Does this mean we should immediately demonize them? No, not necessarily.
Publishers, academics, and politicians have been experimenting with a number of solutions to balance the cost of academic publishing with the ideal of freely-available information. Pay-per-article open-access journals
and the SCOAP3 initiative
are a few examples in the area of physics. These solutions, like many others, have their share of benefits and drawbacks.
Hopefully, Swartz's death will spark an informed discussion on this tricky issue. Many would agree with Anonymous's sentiment that information should be shared widely when possible. But distilling sound scientific research requires an investment in skilled editors and volunteer peer-reviewers.
Disseminating quality scientific research comes at a price, and someone will have to foot the bill.