I first met Aaron Swartz in William L. Harkness Hall, room 202, in early 2009. I was a freshman taking Elizabeth Stark’s “Intellectual Property in the Digital Age” class, and Aaron was a special guest. He sat against the wall of the classroom, quietly confident, and provoked challenging discussions throughout the period. I had no idea that four years later, as his colleague in the fight for Internet freedom, I would be mourning his suicide.
Aaron was a digital-rights activist who accomplished an unbelievable amount in his life‚ from creating the RSS specification when he was 14, to helping build the website Reddit, to playing a critical role in the defeat of two harmful Internet bills last year. A simple Google search or a glance at the front page of yesterday’s New York Times would make it obvious that the list of his feats goes on and on.
Many close to him, including his friends and family, have attributed his suicide last Friday to a brutal prosecution campaign waged by the Department of Justice. His alleged crimes involved downloading millions of academic papers from JSTOR from an MIT network‚ and for this he faced years in prison and absurd fines.
Aaron had always been a strong proponent of open access to information. One of his many goals was to take knowledgeable works that were locked up behind paywalls and copyrights‚ which are antithetical to the free flow of information‚ and make them available to any and all.
Aaron wasn’t alone in this cause. Many institutions, publications and even countries have taken huge steps to make sure publications‚ especially ones funded by taxpayer dollars‚ were freely available to the public. I hate to play this card, but Harvard is perhaps the most prominent example: A majority of faculty by default give Harvard a license to post their scholarly works in a free, online repository. Now researchers, students, patients and citizens across the globe can access pioneering and potentially life-saving information.
I’ll admit, this isn’t the first column I’ve written in the News about open access. It’s unfortunate, however, that very little has changed since that piece was published four years ago. Yale is still conspicuously missing from the growing list of institutions that support‚ if not mandate‚ open-access policies.
Last year I brought this issue up with Dr. Thomas Pollard, dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and he assured me that a faculty committee was interested in open access and a “solution is in the pipeline.” If this is true, I applaud these efforts, but the relative silence over the past year is disconcerting.
Maybe this was the wrong approach. Sure, an institutional policy would make Yale open-access friendly in one fell swoop, but even that means nothing without faculty support. So why not push the open-access movement at the faculty level?
I encourage you, as students, to ask your professors to support open access. Ask them to publish in peer-reviewed open-access journals‚ many of which are highly respected and have huge impact factors. Ask them to post PDFs of their articles on their personal websites or on one of the many free online repositories, such as arXiv. Each of these options preserves their integrity as an academic while also disseminating their works as widely as possible.
One of the first blog posts I had written in that “Intellectual Policy in the Digital Age” class was about why scientists should support open-access publication. Yesterday, I looked at that blog post again and was shocked to find the first comment by none other than Aaron Swartz, encouraging me to start a petition. Instead of just writing about these issues, he wanted me to take action.
Now by writing about these issues, I want you all to take action.
In the words of Aaron, the current systems surrounding human knowledge have forced people to be “locked out from our entire scientific legacy. That is a legacy that has been brought to us by the history of people doing interesting work. … It’s a legacy that should belong to us as a commons, as a people, but instead it’s been locked up. … Now, there are people, good people, trying to change this with the open-access movement.”
Aaron was one of these good people. And he knew that all of us could be just as good.
Adi Kamdar is a 2012 graduate of Calhoun College and works at the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.