Global Ethics Corner: Should Scholarly Research Be Free For All?

Jan 22, 2013

Facing prosecution for illegally downloading millions of academic articles, Internet activist Aaron Swartz recently committed suicide. Should Swartz have been facing jail time? Should scholarly research be available for free?

Few Internet activists can match Aaron Swartz’s formidable achievements. By the age of 26, the world-renowned prodigy had helped create Internet staples like RSS feeds and Reddit. But Swartz was perhaps best known for his commitment to a free and open Internet. In 2012, Swartz campaigned against SOPA—the Stop Online Piracy Act. And he led a global effort to increase free access to digital scholarship.

According to an indictment issued by the U.S. attorney for Massachusetts, from 2010 to 2011 Swartz illegally downloaded 4 million academic articles from the digital library JSTOR. Prosecutors called his actions "digital theft" and threatened to put him behind bars for the next 35 years. Many believe the pressure associated with these threats led to Swartz’s suicide in January 2013.

The charges have since been dropped. But Swartz's death has brought new attention to a crusade intent on lowering access costs for academic research. Like many academics, Swartz believed that the purpose of research was to increase knowledge, not profits. But according to Swartz, academic publishers had it backwards. Today, a subscription to a top journal can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Swartz believed such staggering prices made academic research inaccessible to many researchers in the developing world and beyond. Which is why Swartz suggested researchers bypass traditional publishers and submit their articles to open-access journals. It’s an argument that has yet to resonate within academic circles, where journal prestige remains vital for career success. Skeptics of open access say publishers play a vital role in vetting, organizing, and managing the publishing process. And they believe it's a role publishers should be paid for. As the debate over open access in the ivory tower gains traction, what do you think? Should scholarly research be free for all? And how can scholars best do justice to Swartz's vision for a more equitable and open Internet?

By Marlene Spoerri

For more information see

Tim Wu, "How the Legal System Failed Aaron Swartz—and Us," The New Yorker, January 14, 2013

Jon Schwartz, "Internet Activist, a Creator of RSS, Is Dead at 26, Apparently a Suicide," Thew New York Times, January 12, 2013

Dorotea Szkolar, "Academic Journals are too Expensive For Harvard, Elsevier is Mega Greedy, and Why this Stinks for Future Librarians," Information Space, May 29, 2012

Winston Hide, "I can no longer work for a system that puts profit over access to research," The Guardian, May 16, 2012

The Faculty Advisory Council, "Faculty Advisory Council Memorandum on Journal Pricing," The Harvard Library, April 17, 2012

Photo Credits in Order of Appearance: Fred Benenson Eva Blue Daniel J. Sieradski Fogster sean hobson Sage Ross [also for picture 14] Lou Research Development and Engineering Command N i c o l a Michael Sean Gallagher Paul Stainthorp Gino Roncaglia Marianne Janssens

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