Aaron, the passionate liberator

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz

Lawrence Lessig and Aaron Swartz in 2002 (Courtesy Wikipedia)

The intellectual hoarders around the world would have heaved a sigh of relief when they heard about the tragic death of Aaron Swartz. The Hindu rightly pointed out that the world had become poorer with the death of this computing genius and passionate activist who stood for free access to knowledge and information in the Internet. He worked hard to free information vaulted behind pay walls. In that effort, the young adventurer in him coupled with his programing prowess succeeded to download 4.8 million articles from the digital library of JSTOR and distributed freely in the Internet. Needless to say, this action invited the wrath of establishment. However, the intriguing part here is that we seem to believe, an individual is not mandated to free information. The prosecutor joyously raised the sledgehammer against Aaron which was not the case when one of the big corporations did the same in the pretext of more search results from copyrighted and proprietary information vaults that left room for double standards for the same crime. Another point is that the law book, to our surprise, permitted to keep away scientific information generated out of taxpayers’ money from public access and the taxpayer had to pay again to access information generated by its own funds!

Aaron was a programming genius. At the age of 14, he was seen collaborating with Tim Burners Lee, the creator of world wide web, to launch semantic web for improved data sharing and RSS to distribute news stories and videos. Aaron also helped to architect Creative Commons license which simplified legalese of sharing. Contrary to what an young adult of his age would have done, he did literally nothing in his life to make money. Many times, Google had offered him jobs, but he turned them all down for lack of excitement. Instead, he passionately continued his work to liberate public records, to build a free public library at archive.org, to support Change Congress, FixCongressFirst, Rootstrikers, and Demand Progress, which gave him enormous contentment of working for public good.

Aaron’s death has caused a lot of outrage among scientific community. Many of them have openly come forward against the privatization of knowledge by sharing their copyright protected work on Twitter as a tribute to Aaron. Although the spontaneous response of author community perfectly matched with current situation, it was not legally tenable unless the copyright of works tweeted rested with respective authors. At this point, words of Michael Eisen, co-founder of the Public Library of Sciences become relevant:

. . . but the real way to honor Aaron Swartz is to combat this pervasive institutional fecklessness and do everything in our power to make sure no papers ever end up behind pay walls again.

Free access to information has been opposed by publishing industry ever since the idea broke out. Before the advent of Internet, when dissemination of information depended on printing press and mailing, authors bartering scientific articles in lieu of publishing had a reasonable justification. Now technology has given new avenues where publishing went from being an industry to being a button. Had the Universities and scientific community acted pro-actively to exploit the technologies and to empower authors to publish content by themselves, Aaron’s dream of universal free access to knowledge would have been a reality now. Instead, universities sent unmistakable message to every aspiring faculty member that continuance of their job depended on publishing their research output in high profile journals available. Thus the nexus between Universities and publishing industry grew stronger which ultimately led to the introduction of a bill, namely, Research Works Act (RWA) in the US Congress.

The bill contains provisions to prohibit open access mandates for federally funded research and effectively revert National Institute of Health’s public access policy that require taxpayer-funded research to be freely accessible online. Guardian wrote:

. . . If passed, the Research Works Act (RWA) would prohibit the NIH’s public access policy and anything similar enacted by other federal agencies, locking publicly funded research behind paywalls. The result would be an ethical disaster: preventable deaths in developing countries, and an incalculable loss for science in the USA and worldwide. The only winners would be publishing corporations such as Elsevier (£724m profits on revenues of £2b in 2010 — an astounding 36% of revenue taken as profit).

Expectedly, Association of American Publishers (AAP) and Copyright Alliance supported the bill while Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, the Alliance for Taxpayer Access, American Library Association and the like criticized the bill urging scholarly societies to leave AAP. Several AAP members, including MIT Press, Nature Publishing Group, Amer Assoc for the Adv of Science had expressed their opposition, but didn’t quit AAP. Among others, Elsevier lobbied for the bill which resulted in an online petition – The Cost of Knowledge – inspired by mathematician and Fields medalist Timothy Gowers to raise the awareness among academics. As of date, 13,500 authors have signed to boycott Elsevier by not publishing or helping to publish articles in Elsevier journals.

From the publishing industry, Tim O’Reilly was a loner to raise a strong voice against the bill. In a letter to Congress, he wrote:

It is an attempt to frustrate the work of agencies that realize that publishing about government funded research should be made more widely available, and not hidden in high-priced journals. It is a frontal attack on the open access movement, which scientists are increasingly seeing as critical to the further progress of science. . . . Please don’t write laws that protect 19th century industries against 21st-century disruption!

The happy news is that bill got stalled, Elsevier backed out from lobbying for the bill, but that do not solve the problem of free access to knowledge. It is high time that governments, universities and academics around the world pro-actively come forward to:

  • Identify sustainable publishing models based on open standards and engage in advancing free flow of knowledge to every needy citizen of the world.
  • Identify and provide methods to overcome unnecessary barriers to immediate availability, access, and use of research articles.
  • Pursue a publishing strategy that optimizes openness, quality, and integrity of the publication process.
  • Empower the author by relieving from the forces of industry which is bent on closing knowledge to exploit public resources and author’s intellectual contribution.

Among all, the last point – empowering the author – is the most important. If an author is incapable of exploiting appropriate technologies to publish one’s own content, that is where the publisher steps into the scene with the resultant effect of exploitation of content and author as well. Let empower the author be an objective of a university or research institution that alone can trigger unrestricted flow of information, let the martyrdom of Aaron open the eyes of all concerned in this direction.

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