Some Thoughts on Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz, digital superhero.

Like many people, I’ve been fairly shocked at the suicide of Aaron Swartz a couple days ago.  Here’s some background, if you haven’t read anything about it: Cory Doctorow’s obit post, and Lawrence Lessig’s Prosecutor as Bully.

I have two trains of thought on all this: On the first, I think back to being in high school and coming up against systems that just carried on, not bothering to question their relationship to their underlying purpose.  Like an ‘American literature’ class which involved almost no actual reading, instead focusing entirely on grammar exercises.  Or an ‘independent study’ art class which led, by a strange run of events, to a suspension from school after the Columbine shooting, as the school administration cast about to get rid of any student who reminded them too much of the tragedy in Colorado.  The thing I had been working on was a comic book about the incredible tedium and irrational boundaries of life in an American suburb.  Through my time in school I developed this sense that the vision of the people running the show was too narrow to understand what was possible: the admins were so interested in maintaining a status quo that there was no possibility of examining underlying assumptions, or addressing the contradictions in a school that treats its students like prisoners.

And then I moved on, and life got better.

Aaron Swartz was constantly running up against the contradictions between the old world and the new digital society, and taking concrete actions that exposed those contradictions and forced the conversation forward.

With the PACER/RECAP project, the question was, ‘Why is the body of law governing our society locked behind a pay-wall?’  RECAP is a system for making copies of public information – court documents which are required to be released via the PACER law – freely available to anyone after the initial copy of the document is obtained from the courts.  This charging 10 cents per page for pdf’s, it turns out, was a massive financial boon to the courts, and the feds got snippy when Swartz downloaded some 20% of the PACER database and distributed via RECAP.

The JSTOR case, which was the source of the federal prosecution that led up to Aaron’s suicide, involved similar shenanigans.  Here the question was, ‘Why are the results of all of this publicly-funded academic research locked behind a pay-wall?’ (And a particularly onerous, one at that.)  So Aaron surreptitiously downloaded about 4 million articles, apparently with the intention of making them freely available.  This led to the US DOJ chasing him with a pile of felony charges, threatening 35 years in jail and $1 million in fines.  After JSTOR recommended against pressing forward with the case.  There are more details elsewhere on the web, of course; the important thing here is the irrational response of the government against a well-placed question.

Which brings me to my second train of thought.  There’s no reason for all of this research to be locked away in these for-profit journal systems; as has been repeatedly pointed out, the content in the journals is produced entirely by academics without recompense.  Thus, the journals are making pure gravy, supporting a completely unnecessary system, charging ever escalating rates for their dubious value-additions.  The faster we can move academic publishing away from this model the better.

I’m lucky to be in mathematics, where we at least have the Arxiv, a massive database of freely-submitted ‘pre-prints,’ generally updated to reflect exactly what eventually shows up in the journals.  And in my particular specialty, we have the Electronic Journal of Combinatorics, which has really a model of what academic publishing could be since 1994.  There’s some significant work to be done to overcome the inertia of the status quo, and some reasonable technical solutions still waiting to be hacked together.  The dominant open access model has its own serious flaws, and there should be a better way forward.  In memory of Aaron, we should continue to seek that better, more open, tomorrow.


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