I have seen this young man’s photo countless times across the Internet over the past few days, and it’s so painful every time. For those who haven’t heard of him, Aaron Swartz was a genius and an internet prodigy. The list of things he created and was involved with is long, and, as I am not a computer person, most of it is honestly beyond my understanding. At age 14 he co-authored the RSS language, which you’ll see on many blogs. He was involved in the founding of Creative Commons (a system of copyright which you will also see on many blogs). He was also one of the co-founders of the popular website Reddit.
If you’ve ever tried to read academic and/or scientific journal articles online, you have probably noticed that there are very few you can access the full text for. For most scholarly articles, you can view the abstract, but unless you log in with a subscription you cannot see anything else. Sometimes you are presented with the option to view one article for 24 hours, and the price for that is around $20-$30. For anyone who is conducting serious research (in which one might need to access hundreds of articles) those prices are simply impossible. If you are a student or employee at a college or university, you likely have a subscription through that institution, but for an individual not affiliated with a university, or for someone in the developing world, accessing breaking scientific knowledge in any serious way is just not possible.
I cannot count the number of times I have encountered a “paywall” in my quest for knowledge about chronic pain and fibromyalgia. It’s always so disappointing when I read a summary for what sounds like the perfect study, with subjects that sound just like me… only to discover that I need to be affiliated with a university to read the entire thing.
I always just kind of accepted the fact that research has its costs, but what I never knew is that much of this research that people like me are unable to access is paid for by taxpayers. Not only that, but many of the journals charging exorbitant prices for subscriptions actually receive tax-exempt status themselves. The studies locked away by these academic journals are financially supported by all of us, but they are locked away from the eyes of anyone not affiliated with a college or university.
Aaron believed in equality and in the freedom of information. He wrote,
Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the Global South? It’s outrageous and unacceptable … Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world … It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy … It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture. (as cited by Ali Hayat, “The Prosecution of Aaron Swartz”).
Aaron conducted his own peaceful protest by uploading millions of articles from the well-known academic journal JSTOR to the Internet. Yes, this was technically illegal, but for Aaron it was a form of civil disobedience against what he so aptly described as the “private theft of public culture.”
Aaron committed suicide last Friday, January 11th. There is much speculation that he had ongoing issues with depression, and possibly a problem with chronic pain. Yet any way you look at it, the upcoming trial and the possibility of 35 years in jail is likely to be the thing that tipped him over the edge.
Those who knew him wrote that Aaron was a deeply principled, compassionate young man. The New York Times includes a quote from Aaron’s friend Cory Doctorow describing him as “uncompromising, principled, smart, flawed, loving, caring, and brilliant.” As one commenter put it on Twitter, Aaron was a “modern-day Robin Hood: he stole from the rich to give to the poor.” The “wealth” he stole was knowledge.
You might have a different opinion than me on whether or not Aaron should have done what he did, but I think what we all can agree on is that the punishment did not fit the crime. According to the New York Times, prosecutors at the Masschusetts Department of Justice were seeking a maximum sentence of 35 years in prison, and $1 million in fines. This is completely outrageous when you compare it to the lesser sentences people face for much more serious crimes. As this article on Alternet points out, Aaron faced a greater sentence than the maximum sentence for those convicted of manslaughter (ten years), armed bank robbery (20 years), and the selling of child pornography (20 years).
The principles Aaron stood for are particularly relevant to me as someone who has had to do a lot of research in understanding my own chronic pain. As anyone who has tried to get help with chronic pain or fibromyalgia knows, there is a huge delay between the groundbreaking research that is currently being done on pain and the nervous system, and the knowledge that actually gets put into practice in exam rooms. I am confident that in about twenty years, most doctors will have a much better understanding of the mechanisms of fibromyalgia (aka central sensitization). But I believe that patients can hurry that process along by educating and advocating for ourselves. If our tax money is going to support scientific studies that could possibly help us, should there really be a paywall standing between us and the results?
There are certainly people who can explain the situation better than me. You can read more on Aaron here and here. I just wanted to put this story into my own words. Thank you Aaron, for everything you stood for.
**There is an Internet tribute going on for Aaron right now, in which academics are tweeting links to PDF’s of their published articles, under the hashtag #pdftribute. They are taking a risk by doing so, as the copyrights to many of these articles are still owned by the journals they were originally published in. You can view the Twitter feed here.**