How MIT can honour Aaron Swartz

02:37, Feb 07 2013
Aaron Swartz
LEGACY: Internet activist Aaron Swartz, who helped create an early version of RSS and played a key role in stopping a controversial online piracy bill, committed suicide at age 26.

MIT should continue Aaron Swartz's campaign to free up access to academic journals.

Beginning in the autumn of 2010, Aaron Swartz repeatedly logged on to the campus network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and used an automated script to download nearly 5 million articles from JSTOR, one of the largest digital archives of scholarly journals in the world.

When they discovered Swartz's actions, JSTOR and MIT faced a choice - should they help prosecute Swartz as a nefarious hacker, or forgive him for skirting the law while pursuing his activism?

Last year, after he agreed to return the articles he'd downloaded, JSTOR dropped its civil case against him. MIT took a different course.

According to Swartz's friends and supporters, the university played a key role in federal prosecutors' efforts to prosecute Swartz on a range of computer fraud charges.

On January 11, facing the near certainty of a jail sentence, Swartz committed suicide.

Soon afterwards, MIT's president released a heartfelt public statement. "It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy," wrote Rafael Reif.

He appointed Hal Abelson, a computer science professor, to lead an investigation into the university's participation in the Swartz case.

Abelson has said he will release his report in a few weeks' time.

I'm hoping the investigation will go beyond merely excoriating the school for its shameful role in Swartz's prosecution.

If MIT truly wants to atone for joining the federal case against Swartz, it should do something much grander: it should pledge to use its money, prestige and moral authority to start a multi-university campaign to free every scholarly article from behind pay wall archives such as JSTOR. MIT should pledge to finish the project Swartz started.

Making academic articles available to everyone is one of the most direct ways for MIT to fulfil its public-spirited mission to expand the world's access to knowledge.

During the past decade, MIT, like other big-name schools, has put thousands of its lectures and course materials online, allowing anyone, anywhere to access it free. It has even begun offering certificates to people who take its online courses.

But liberating academic articles from pay walls would be a much greater, more lasting contribution. If every scholarly work were free and searchable, teachers, schoolchildren, university students and brilliant autodidacts everywhere (people such as Swartz) would be able to use the internet as a true source of learning.

Freeing academic articles would help universities reclaim their place in public debates. Much of the work produced in academia is never seen by anyone outside that cloistered world, because everyone who's not affiliated with a university is cut off from access.

The fact that most people don't have access to legitimate research is probably not the only reason so many of your fellow citizens hold dubious beliefs about climate change, evolution, vaccines or other things, but it doesn't help. By killing pay walls, MIT could make the truth more relevant.

But if all that's too dreamy for you, here's a simpler reason for MIT to stop the pay wall madness: it will save money. The world's colleges collectively spend at least $US10 billion ($NZ11.95 billion) and probably more than $US20 billion every year on subscriptions to academic journals and archives such as JSTOR.

Even worse, those costs are rising at an astronomical rate - by one calculation, the amount a typical college library spends on annual subscriptions rose by more than 300 per cent between 1986 and 2005, much faster than inflation, tuition, and most university budgets. (Note that this was during a period when many journals went electronic, a time when you'd expect their costs and, thus, their prices to go down, not up.) These prices keep rising because the market for journals is inelastic. Since there's no substitute for any specific journal, whatever price it charges, universities feel they have to keep paying.

The amount universities spend on journals is especially perverse when you consider that most of the research in those journals was produced by scholars affiliated with and supported by universities, government agencies and philanthropic endowments, all of whom have an interest in spreading scholarship far and wide.

The whole process looks Rube Goldbergian: people who work for universities and are funded by the public are giving their work away to journals free - and then the journals charge universities to buy it back. They're also making enormous profits from the scheme. For instance, Elsevier, one of the leading publishers of scientific journals, routinely reports profit margins of about 37 per cent.

MIT could stop the whole business with a few bold steps. First, it should declare that, within three years' time, its libraries will cease subscribing to all academic journals and archives that do not make their articles available online to everyone.

Second, MIT should require all of its faculty, graduate students and other affiliated researchers to submit their work only to open-access journals.

Third, MIT should instruct its deans and other officials no longer to look favourably on the mere fact of publication in a "prestigious" journal when making hiring and tenure decisions.

Instead, promotions should be based on the quality of a person's work, wherever it's published. (This sounds obvious but most people in academia will tell you that where you publish is just as important as what you publish.)

Finally and perhaps most importantly, MIT should encourage other universities to participate in this effort. Specifically, it should establish a fund that pays for the true costs of publishing academic journals. Call it the Aaron Swartz Memorial Open-Access Fund. Instead of paying exorbitant subscription fees to for-profit journals, universities would instead contribute to the fund.

I didn't come up with this plan by myself. I've filched many of these ideas from open-access advocates, especially Michael Eisen, a biologist at University of California, Berkeley who's been crusading on the issue. Eisen lays the blame for the sorry state of scholarly publishing at the feet of university presidents, whom he calls "feckless" on the issue of open access.

- Slate