Academics launch brilliant viral tribute to Aaron Swartz

Rebel with a cause

aaron swartz

Aaran Swartz 1986-2013

It will be hard for the mainstream media to pigeonhole Aaron Swartz, the young man who committed suicide in New York on friday at the tender age of 26. Sure, he was a computer programmer and entrepreneur of sorts with serial internet start-ups under his belt – he helped develop RSS and was involved in Reddit. But these were almost incidental. He was an online activist. More than anything, he was a rebel with a cause.

Two internets

Like the Matrix, we live in a strange world of two internets. Everyone (essentially everyone) believes they can find all information on all subjects online. This is a myth. The academic sector – universities and institutes – produce most new knowledge. This new knowledge – the most reliable information we as a species have – is contained behind firewalls of the major academic publishers. With hefty fees to view each article, it is essentially only accessible to those working in academia. Worse still, the lion’s share of the sum total of human knowledge does not even appear in search engine results because it hides behind a pay wall.

On the flip side, the academics who write the papers for these journals, and act as editors and reviewers, do so for the most part unpaid. To add insult to injury, the publishers sell their products back to universities and institutes at exorbitant prices. You could say the publishers are taking the piss. But, then, the academic community is giving it away.

It gets worse. The expensive research the academics write about is largely financed by tax payers. In this surreal Monty Python-like business model, a costly product is given away for free then sold back to the producer at a sky-high fee.

Swartz felt this was just plain wrong. He was not alone. In the last few years many academics have attempted to shine a light on the scandal through the Open Access Movement and many open access journals have sprung up. Even government funding agencies in the UK and Sweden say it cannot continue and have made steps to address it. But this is a raindrop falling into the ocean of past knowledge.

In 2008, Swartz published the Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto calling for students and academics with access to these vast resources to post research papers online making them freely available. Not content with progress on Open Access, the manifesto demanded all academic information be released.

In July 2011, true to his word, in events reminiscent of WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange, Swartz was “indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library,” according to the New York Times yesterday.

This got a troubled man into a lot of trouble and may have contributed to his suicide. As I write, three days after his death, a fitting tribute to a true visionary is drawing attention. Fed up with publishers, academics are posting research papers online and tagging them on Twitter #pdftribute. A stream has turned into a torrent. Every second dozens more tweets swamp the hashtag.

We talk endlessly about the need for humanity to find ways to navigate the Anthropocene, to develop sustainably, to change course rapidly. If reliable knowledge is kept from those who need it nothing will happen. This is a major institution that should topple.

It would be interesting to see a WikiLeaks for academia emerge.

The Anthropocene Journal would support it gladly.