Editorial: Right the wrong

Published in The Hindu on January 25, 2013

Aaron Swartz - Wikimedia Commons

Aaron Swartz downloaded 4.8 million articles from the digital library, JSTOR in order to distribute them freely. – Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The world is a poorer place with the death of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old computer genius and zealous advocate of free public access to knowledge and content on the Internet. Among other things, he was a Robin Hood of modern times, who fervently believed that if information is power, then that power should be freely available to people across the globe. And if that meant freeing up, by whatever means, the information kept behind paywalls, so be it. But the methods the digital activist adopted were not always in line with law. If downloading 4.8 million articles from the digital library, JSTOR in order to distribute them freely was not legally right, the prosecution’s steely determination to use a sledgehammer to punish him was completely wrong. In the end, this overkill snuffed out the life of a brilliant young man. But even in death, Swartz has achieved something truly remarkable — he has galvanised the scientific community into realising the importance of free access to academic work. The outrage by scientists has manifested itself in several ways, one of which perfectly reflects his ideals. Opposing the “privatisation of knowledge,” researchers have begun sharing their copyright-protected work on Twitter as a tribute to Swartz, using the hashtag #PDFtribute. While it perfectly resonates with his agenda, it may not be legally tenable to do this for long, unless the copyright rests with the authors. Hence there is a need to channel the emotion of scholars to finding a permanent solution. As Michael Eisen, co-founder of the Public Library of Sciences (PLoS) tweeted, “real #PDFtribute shouldn’t be putting your paywalled papers online, it should be never letting them go behind a paywall again.”

In a parallel development, with nearly 60,000 petitions, the U.S. administration is coming under increasing pressure to quickly consider providing open access to all papers arising from taxpayer-funded research. Currently, only the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has such a policy in place. The least the U.S. government can do to mitigate the indignation is by quickly acting on the pending Federal Research Public Access Act, that would make ‘green open access’ mandatory for all federally-funded research. Moreover, other countries have already instituted similar policies. For instance, starting this April, all papers arising from Research Councils UK funding will perforce be ‘gold open access.’ Effective January 1, 2013, all results of research funded by the Australian Research Council will become open access within 12 months of publication. These policies will not set free the locked-up results, but will at least prevent future work from hiding behind paywalls.