Sunday, January 13, 2013

RIP Aaron Swartz

If you're reading this blog, you're likely aware of Reddit and the passing of one of Reddit's founders, Aaron Schwartz (link to Ars Technica here). I can't say I knew anything about Schwartz prior to his death, but one remarkable achievement of his life is relevant to the Open Science Kentucky blog.

In 2011, Aaron Schwartz was charged with "illegally" downloading millions of academic papers "owned" by JSTOR, a publishing middle-man that owns its users' scholarly content once they submit it for "publishing", with the intention of sharing them with the world. Schwartz faced decades of imprisonment for this crime. If convicted, his sentence, no doubt, would've served as a stern warning to those who'd challenge lucrative publishing conglomerates and their undue influence on our civilized society.

We've written about the absurdity of the academic publishing industry here, here, here, here, here, and probably elsewhere too. I could link to any number of thousands of conflicting articles in competing journals cited by proprietary news organizations owned by those profiting from sensationalism collectively indicating how huge a problem the academic publishing industry actually is. Not that I'm alone in my disdain; there's nearly ubiquitous acrimony among those in the research community toward the highly-flawed publishing industry (here's a tongue-in-cheek portrayal of this) and its lucrative stranglehold on the public record of knowledge.

So, Aaron Schwartz committed a crime and would've been punished as dictated by law. The law upvotes and downvotes, it does not decide right and wrong in the larger sense. Deciding legal versus illegal, right versus wrong, is up to us. We've decided, as a civilized society, that information (often created with public tax dollars) can be owned by individuals and corporations. We justify it with any number of platitudes and anecdotes about innovation and genius and the university and impact factor and curricula vitae. We hand our lifes' works to publishing houses and trust that they'll use them for the benefit of the communities we cherish. Again and again, we learn that our system is flawed. Yet, we continue on this course, punishing those who challenge it with academic isolation and prison.

Aaron Schwartz believed that information belongs to everyone. We agree.

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