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Aaron Swartz’s Tragic Death

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The death by suicide of 26-year-old Aaron Swartz – an American activist and advocate of open access, open data, and openness in science, has touched many and sparked off a heated debate on the Internet and in other public media. Many people ask how such a tragedy could have taken place. Researchers and the academic community, as well as other advocates of open access, have published their papers in OA as a tribute to Aaron Swartz.

Aaron Swartz’s suicide had its apparent source in a well-publicised case from 2009, when the young advocate of openness had allegedly downloaded 4.8 million documents from the academic database JSTOR. Despite the fact that JSTOR did not bring any charges against Swartz, the public prosecutor had decided to go for trial. If convicted, Aaron Swartz would have faced the likelihood of 35 years imprisonment and millions of dollars in fines. It was that appalling prospect, we can surmise, which was the direct trigger of this terrible tragedy.

It is a wrong place and time to analyse the deeper causes of this tragic death. Others are more suited for that, and some have expressed their views already. I would rather confine my words to a simpler question – again already widely discussed, of how will this shocking event influence the perception of open access and the future shape of the results of scientific research.

Without doubt we are witnessing a huge wave of solidarity with the ideas that Aaron Swartz so passionately and bravely advocated and defended. On Twitter, authors – as a mark of tribute, are placing links to their works and making them available to everyone. In the academic world there is not only a vigorous debate concerning the law, which could send Aaron Swartz behind bars for many decades, but also about the idea of open access itself. But will this response alone be able to bring lasting, positive effects? Will open access, publicised today in such a tragic manner, gain wider acceptability and support?

The matter is, unfortunately, extremely complicated. On the one hand, there is a well-established scientific publishing model, which has a dominant position in the scientific community and is often critical to the careers of researchers. In addition, the current legal framework governing licensing and copyrights favours the traditional model of publishing. Moreover, the idea of open access, despite the fact that it dates back many decades and is growing at an accelerated rate, still lives in the shadow of the current, dominant paradigm and is to a large extent ignored by governments and other relevant institutions. The outrage and opposition that we witness today may not prove to be enough to change that situation.

On the other hand, we can see that reinvigorated debate on the access to research results and on open access in general, is not confined to the academic world alone. It has become a matter of broader concern, with millions of people, until now unaware of open access and its objectives, now becoming involved with its ramifications.  It is an encouraging sign, because the desire for change from the current paradigm has to come not only from the top, from the institutions, also but also from the general public itself. Without such a broad involvement and participation of researchers themselves, and of others who understand the wider cultural benefits of open access, not much progress will be made.


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