3 years after death, legacy of Internet star Aaron Swartz gains strength – Chicago Tribune
Three years after Aaron Swartz took his life, the legacy of the influential young advocate for Internet openness is still unfolding. But in one respect, it’s already crystal clear.
Swartz, who was raised in Highland Park, believed academic research should be available for free instead of being locked behind publishers’ paywalls. That conviction might have prompted him to download millions of journal articles without authorization, an action that brought a federal prosecution many believe led to his suicide.
But today, the “open access” movement Swartz promoted is stronger than ever, and some of its advances can be traced directly to him.
“It’s hard to say anything good about what happened because it was a tragedy,” said Corynne McSherry of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an organization that addresses civil liberties in the digital world. “But I do think that case was important in terms of raising awareness of this problem, and keeping that awareness up. People haven’t forgotten what happened.”
Academic journals are the traditional depositories of new research findings, and access usually doesn’t come cheap: A single publication can cost a library thousands of dollars a year, while individual articles are often priced at $25 or more.
That puts bleeding-edge knowledge beyond the reach of people unaffiliated with major universities. Justin Peters, author of the just-published biography “The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet,” said Swartz’s unusual education made that seem like a particular injustice.
Swartz, unhappy at North Shore Country Day School in Winnetka, left after his freshman year. Though he was home-schooled and attended occasional classes at Lake Forest College, he largely directed his own learning with material he found online, Peters said.
“You can trace (his belief in open access) back to him saying, ‘Being able to access information helped me become the sort of person I am, and writ large, would probably have a similar effect on the rest of the world,'” he said.
Swartz’s idealism might have driven him to the caper that became his downfall. In September 2010, federal prosecutors alleged, Swartz broke into a computer wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then tapped into the school’s network to download millions of articles from an archive called JSTOR.
Though Swartz had posted a manifesto calling for activists to upload scientific journals to file-sharing networks, Peters said Swartz never did that with the JSTOR cache, and might not have intended to. Instead, he said, Swartz could have been planning to use the material to analyze corporate influence on scientific research.
Campus police arrested Swartz, and Boston’s U.S. attorney made the controversial decision to prosecute him for violating the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act. Despondent, Swartz hanged himself in his Brooklyn apartment on Jan. 11, 2013. He was 26.
His death came as a stunning blow to many in the tech world and beyond. State Sen. Daniel Biss, D-Evanston, a University of Chicago math professor before entering politics, said he shared mutual acquaintances with Swartz and was inspired to do something “to advance what he believed in.”
Biss wrote a bill that directed all state-funded universities to make their research available to the public without charge and without exception. Scholars and administrators objected to such broad terms, he said, so he modified the bill simply to require the schools to discuss the issue.
“That turned out pretty well, because you want this to be a faculty-driven decision,” Biss said. “A number of campuses have now created pretty good open access policies.”
One of them is the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Dean of Libraries John Wilkin said the school’s faculty senate passed a rule that makes free access to a scholar’s work the default, though researchers can ask for a waiver (some journals won’t publish a paper without one).
He said there’s also a new push for libraries to publish research themselves, potentially saving money — his campus spends upward of $18 million on publications each year — while promoting greater public access.
“I think it will probably be a slow movement to different models,” Wilkin said. “We’re already seeing some diversification. We have more open access and greater diversity out there.”
But some scholars say open access has its own challenges.
University of Illinois professor Peter Goldsmith became executive editor of the international Food and Agribusiness Management Review in 2008 after persuading its board to trade a subscription-based approach for one that made research available for free. The industry’s growth is coming in the developing world, he said, and scholars there can’t afford expensive journals.
The move broadened the review’s potential reach, but its staff is now obliged to perform the work traditionally done by a commercial publisher, such as getting its articles into databases — like JSTOR — that will get them noticed.
“Mainline publishers are really good at giving their scholars visibility,” he said. “You pay for it with most of them, but boy, do they give you visibility.”
While many open access advocates are bullish about the future, some take a more sober view. Swartz’s father, Robert, noted that a huge chunk of the world’s knowledge still can’t be accessed without payment, making money for publishers while denying researchers a wider audience.
“I’ve never met any academic who wants their research behind a paywall,” he said.
He said one solution would be to amend copyright law so papers would enter the public domain in 10 or 15 years (the normal duration is the life of the author plus 70 years). But he acknowledged that changing a law is difficult — “Aaron’s Law,” a bill to limit the penalties in the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act used to prosecute Swartz, has gone nowhere since it was introduced in Congress in 2013.
While further progress will be a struggle, he said, he was optimistic that academics and libraries will ultimately realize that openness is the best approach.
“Aaron wanted to make the world a better place, and I hope that his spirit can animate us to do that,” he said.