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RIP, Aaron Swartz, and Why Open-Access Matters

Why the untimely death of an advocate for open access matters to you

Last week, 26-year-old Aaron Swartz hanged himself. Swartz was a champion of open everything: open access code, open access journals, and fought for a utopian version of the internet. In that utopian version of the internet, people have access to information, and freedom of speech trumps SOPA and other draconian copyright laws. There are many roundups about Swartz, so I won't rehash the news that's available elsewhere online.

At the time of his death, Swartz was facing 30 years in jail and a $1 million fine for downloading and distributing four million articles from academic journals.

Last year, I wrote an article on "How to Find What You're Not Looking For" for Scientific American, which highlighted ways that our online information habits can lead to unexpected scientific discoveries. 

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I interviewed plenty of researchers, hoping to understand the fundamentals of scientific discovery and serendipity. I didn't expect that there would be any themes: I was just hoping to get a bunch of quotes and information on different search methods, discovery methods, and what different researchers did to get information online, in the hopes of creating some cross disciplinary guidelines.

Instead, I became really passionate about the idea of open-access publishing for academic journals. If you've ever tried to access the PDF of a study published in a scientific journal, only to discover that you need a subscription to Elsevier, JSTOR, EBSCOhost, or any other database, you understand the complexities involved in tracking down good data.

As a science writer, I need access to studies in order to write about them. The more roadblocks there are between a journalist and a piece of research, the less likely it's going to be written about, because there are so many other pieces of information vying for our attention.

But researchers need access to this information, as well, and not every university or research institution can pay the fees needed to access all of these articles. And why are these articles behind paywalls? Money. Not "let's keep this small journal afloat" kind of money, but big money. Elsevier, made more than $1.1 billion in 2011. In profits. Academic publishing is big business.

Luck and discovery are about making connections, and it's sad to think about how many connections aren't being made because of the current academic publishing model. No academics I've spoken with are happy with the current model of academic publishing: they work unbelievably hard to please a handful of editors at peer-reviewed journals, who have unwieldy amounts of influence, only to have their work published in a prestigious journal that can't be read by many people. Researchers can't even put PDFs of their papers up on their websites, because many times, the papers are owned by the journals. (In many ways, Elsevier and other databases sound a lot like music labels, strong-arming others into submission. And we know how well that business model is working out for music labels.)

Currently, a lot of scientific research is being funded by national grants, and publishing companies like Elsevier are the ones making a profit. Meanwhile, because of all of the paywalls and roadblocks, journalists and, more importantly, other researchers, can't access the information.

What can you do? You can tell others by forwarding any of the links in this post, you can sign this White House petition for access to scientific research that was funded by taxpayer research. It's not perfect, but it's a good place to start.


Karla Starr is a writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, former books editor of Willamette Week, and former books columnist for Seattle Weekly.


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