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To Honor Aaron Swartz, Let Knowledge Go Free

Bringing knowledge to the public should be the central mission of academia

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February 1, 2013

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on February 1, 2013.

By Jennifer Chan

On January 12, visionary and innovator Aaron Swartz took his life. His death, like his life, has reinvigorated the discussion about freeing up scholarly information for public use.

As many have read by now, Swartz was a genius technologist and activist who did such things as create the RSS feed and help design the code for the Creative Commons license, allowing more liberal sharing of ideas. He stood for the open sharing of knowledge for all. Among the questions he left us is this: Is this what academia stands for? Do the academy's actions actually support this stance?

The academy's goal is, supposedly, to pursue knowledge and advance science in order to affect the larger world. The first peer-reviewed journal, Philosophical Transactions, published in 1665, came from the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge. Hundreds of year later, our academic systems put limits on who in the world can read and use that knowledge.

Aaron Swartz opposed those limits to his core. He hacked into Journal Storage, commonly known as JSTOR, an online academic database of academic articles and books, and downloaded more than four million of them to prove that he could share it freely with public. The hacking was simple. Taking a stand to show academia and the public that scholarly work could be shared openly was radical—and risky. In doing so, he faced federal felony charges. But he believed that allowing knowledge to flow freely was so essential that he took those risks.

For the public, it's hard to enter university libraries. You need keys to access those books, journals, and databases. Those keys are costly: you must be employed by, studying at, or otherwise affiliated with an academic institution to freely walk through those doors or download an article and read the latest science.

Even scholars and researcher face barriers. Many journals ban researchers from sharing their articles with others. Those journals only allow them to distribute their ideas and knowledge through the journal's online publishing house, which requires others to pay for access. Those paywalls prevent the public from accessing the fruits of academia. What's more, they also keep out some global scholars and universities that cannot afford the institutional subscriptions. An article published in the Journal for the American Society for Information Science and Technology in 2007 estimates that a single institution's annual subscription can cost university libraries anywhere from $5,000 to $600,000—an unimaginable amount in some underdeveloped countries.

Universities unintentionally create incentives to keep these paywalls in place. Academia often rewards scholars based upon the numbers of publications in prestigious journals—the very journals that put up their expensive gates. Since open access publications—journals that do not charge such enormous amounts, but share their work freely—are often perceived to be less prestigious, young investigators are dissuaded from publishing in them, lest those articles count less toward tenure.

However, some scholars feel so strongly that keeping this moat around their work profoundly contradicts their academic mission that they are taking a stand—and are pushing their knowledge into the public, selectively choosing to publish only in widely accessible journals. For instance, on January 21, 2012, Timothy Gower, a prominent mathematician at Cambridge University, posted on his blog a plea to his colleagues to take a "bottom up" collective stance, and to refrain from publishing and partaking in editorial activities with the well-known publisher Elsevier—because that company's high subscription prices prevent many institutions from subscribing. In response, Tyler Neylon, another mathematician, started a website, thecostofknowledge.com, where researchers can pledge to withhold their articles, peer review, and editorial services from Elsevier. The website now has public commitments from 13,189 academics. And individuals aren't the only ones making this commitment to open access. As early as 2007, the highly prestigious New England Journal of Medicine, which now has a weekly readership of more than 300,000 people from all over the world, changed their policies to offer the rest of the world free access to research articles six months after publication. It also allows free access to readers in from low-income countries.

Some people believe that the expense of publishing peer-reviewed journals justifies the high cost of access. But is this the only possible business model?

When mobile technology began, many people believed that its growth would be expensive. Putting up cell phone towers was costly. Each handset was expensive. Payment plans were expensive. And yet mobile technology is now used as widely by the global poor as by the rich—because innovators thought up new business models. Today, most mobile technology use worldwide is prepaid. The less fortunate can pay for minutes and text messages as they can afford them, a few at a time. And in countries like Kenya, people can easily transfer money via their mobile phones. The need for a faster, a better, and more distributed way for people to communicate prompted disruptive innovation using technology and the creativity of individuals to redesign business models.

That, I believe, will be just as true for academic and scientific knowledge. Because some science literally saves lives, we have no other moral choice but to share its insights freely. Other ideas need to be widely shared simply because they may generate a new discovery that will change our lives, like the Internet. We must either create a new business model for sharing academic research, or at least, must further develop models that include open access for wider dissemination and use. I may not have the final answer for how that will happen. But I firmly believe in the academy's mission and the power of innovation both in our ivory towers and beyond to make this change.

The loss of Aaron Swartz has brought this movement to light once again. Using the hashtag #PDFTribute on twitter, many academics have been tweeting links to pdfs of their published articles. Bringing knowledge to the public is our central mission. In our age of interdisciplinary engagement, as we attempt to collaborate globally to save our climate, provide effective aid during disasters, and collectively move toward the next great discovery, even we academics cannot afford to keep information padlocked inside thick gates.

- Jennifer Chan M.D. is an assistant professor of medicine at Northwestern University.

Topics: Opinion