L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, announced last week that he would release documents relating to Aaron Swartz, the gifted computer programmer who killed himself earlier this year. The 26-year-old was being prosecuted for downloading academic papers that MIT had licensed from the publishing company JSTOR when he killed himself.
Swartz's punishment could have led to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Some have argued that prosecutorial threats along with his depression led to his eventual suicide. The details of his death in January were widely discussed, but with the new release of these MIT documents, it is likely that the events preceding his death will once more be in the news.
What should not be missed in this tragic story is the importance of the dissemination of academic knowledge that Swartz clearly understood.
Academics such as scientists communicate their results of research and study by publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals. They do not make money off their publications. In this respect, they differ from creative artists such as musicians or writers, who may earn royalties or fees.
The community of scientists reviews each other's papers, free of charge. What is gained here is prestige: prestige in being published, or prestige in serving as a reviewer. While prestige doesn't directly translate into monetary gain, it is an important factor in gaining tenure, being promoted, and competing for grants from granting agencies.
Finally, it is the granting agencies -- many government-funded -- that ultimately support the research endeavor, paying for researchers' salaries, research supplies and equipment, and finally the costs of publication.
Given this model, you might think that accessing scientific publications would be inexpensive. But this is not the case. The publications themselves typically land in corporate-owned scientific journals that restrict access by hefty subscriptions that only major university libraries can afford. For instance, Northwestern University pays more than $7.5 million per year for electronic subscription of journals, with the price of a single journal yearly subscription well over $1,000.
Academics have been trying to address this issue of access since everyone would stand to benefit from the dissemination of their ideas. Timothy Gowers, a Fields Medal-winning mathematician, and a vocal advocate for open access, has in fact made a compelling case urging his fellow mathematicians to boycott publishers with the most exorbitant fee structure and to find ways to archive and disseminate information freely. Other academics are pushing for an increase in the number of open access journals that are typically online-only, thus sparing the costs of creating ink-on-paper versions of their manuscripts. But someone still has to pay for the electronic publishing and administration of the websites.
Two financial models govern open access. The first involves the scientist paying the publication charges, but once published the article becomes freely available. However, with the scientist paying the full costs, there is a tendency for open access journals to be less selective than the private journals that maintain selectivity to keep a premium on subscription. It also sometimes leads to predatory practices on the part of a few unscrupulous journals to make money under the garb of open access.
The second model involves endowed research foundations paying for the publishing of a select set of high-quality publications. But this model clearly will not work for the bulk of scientific articles.
In biomedical research, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) has enforced open access of all articles supported by NIH funding on PubMed Central, an online database, within one year of publication.
It is still too early to say whether all science will become open access, but the benefits of open knowledge are enormous. First, scientists and students around the world, especially those in developing countries, will have access to this otherwise unreachable knowledge. A scientist or physician in sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, would be able to see the latest developments in malaria research without being kept out by an insurmountable paywall. Moreover, this open availability of information would immediately increase the number of people globally participating in the important intellectual debates of our time.
Second, savvy amateurs with a drive to understand a field, but who do not have access to university libraries and resources, can really make their own decisions or participate in informed discussions usually confined to scientists on issues such as global warming, immunization, and hazards of cell phone use. Jack Andraka, who at 15 years old won the 2012 Intel Science Fair competition, makes a very eloquent case for open access, as he tells us the hurdles he had to face as a high-schooler in his own prize-winning project on pancreatic cancer.
Open access is necessary for true science outreach that can really push society intellectually forward. It will be easier for everyone to access the primary literature, and it will be more difficult to talk of conspiracy theories when the data is for all to see and evaluate. Of course, there will be debates, but these will now revolve around the quality and interpretation of the evidence with more in-depth analyses.
The debates and general ferment will raise the level of scientific discourse that we academics so often complain about, and, who knows, this sort of thoughtfulness might well spill over into just about everything we do. In short, one might argue against Aaron Swartz's means, but it is difficult to argue with the end that he was fighting for.