There’s an essential piece missing from the blizzard of news and commentary on the tragic recent suicide of Internet hacktivist Aaron Swartz, who was reportedly distraught at a looming federal prosecution for downloading without permission through the network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology about four million academic articles from the subscription fee-based JSTOR database. Open access to scientific research not only helps degreed experts collaborate in their own languages; it is a building block to a better informed citizenry. But capitalizing on its value to the broader society takes focus, effort, and support.
Swartz faced up to 30 years on 13 felony counts, although prosecutors had reportedly offered a plea-bargain that would have yielded only a few months in prison, writes Yale Law School researcher Adam Cohen in Time. However Cohen adds that Swartz bristled at having to accept the status of a felon because what he did was to serve the broader public. Meanwhile, the affair has vaulted the seemingly rarified subject of open access publishing into the spotlight. There could be no better time to examine the pay-wall model Swartz fought – as well as the flip side – which is that the reach of open access is already growing. We also have to consider who should be doing what with this stuff, once it is made public in full and for free. Crucial is the role of an engaged and networked news eco-sphere that cares about science and its impact on the human condition.