More about the career, and legacy, of Aaron Swartz.
Tag Archives: JSTOR
The death of Mr. Swartz, apparently by suicide, is a tragic loss to the open access movement, and indeed to the world at large. He is perhaps most famously known for having hacked into the computer network at M.I.T. and then downloading most of the articles available on JSTOR in an attempt to make them free to the public. He was facing charges for that act that could have netted him years in prison and millions of dollars in fines.
JSTOR itself, it should be noted, declined to press charges. It was the State Prosecutor for Massachusetts* who pursued Mr. Swartz (to his death, some would argue).
As an academic who participates in the process of scholarly information production and exchange, I have some understanding of the time, money, and effort it takes to conduct research, write and publish articles, run an academic journal, collect and curate said articles, and archive them in ways that make them available to others in a useful form. That work deserves fair compensation. But at the same time, corporations have become gatekeepers to that information (which is often produced at public expense at public universities, funded by public grants) and are charging what appear to be exorbitant amounts of money for access.
The Open Access model of information production and distribution requires a fundamental restructuring of the way information is produced, circulated, and valued in our culture. The current model is deeply entrenched, and will not change without significant buy-in from stakeholders who are currently highly resistant. Thus some activists are taking back their power by circumventing the system and forming alternate systems outside the current publishing structure. Mr. Swartz was one of those. He did so, not for any gain of his own, but because of his passionate conviction that the producers and users of information need to take back control of their intellectual property and make it freely available (or as free as possible). The entire system of scholarly production and exchange is changing, and the sooner the corporations that tie up intellectual information in proprietary databases realize this, the better.
*Correction: an earlier version of this post said it was the federal government that pursued prosecution of Mr. Swartz. The corrected information is above.