Aaron Swartz, Open Access Information, and Sustainability

The death of Aaron Swartz, internet innovator and open data activist, has sent waves through political, hi-tech, and academic communities. 

Swartz - whose many accomplishments included writing the code that powers the RSS feeds for all your favourite news sites - was facing a possible 30 year jail term for having downloaded thousands of academic articles from the on-line repository JSTOR which houses most academic publications.

JSTOR is a pay-per-use service. Swartz's intent, allegedly, was to provide free on-line access to that vast store of knowledge. Hounded by U.S. federal prosecutors, Swartz took his own life at the end of last week.

His death, among other things, is prompting a renewed discussion around the ethics of the current academic publishing model.

Currently, hefty access fees confine the circulation of recent research to a narrow community of wealthy academic institutions, while cutting off those who can't afford the entry price. This model affects academics, practitioners, and journalists in both the developing and the developed world.

This discussion is particularly relevant to those of us here in the MIT community, given the role that the university played in Swartz's prosecution (see coverage in Time).

Owen Barder, Europe Director at the Center for Global Development writes in his blog that Swartz' death should prompt us to push for significant reforms in the way that we publish and share the results of academic research:

"We know that sharing ideas, technology and data are essential to enable poor countries to close the gap with rich counties. Yet we have made it progressively harder for companies in poor countries to adopt new technologies, through protection of intellectual property, copyright and trademarks."
This is as true for the issue of reducing the development divide generally, as it is for research dealing with environmental and urban sustainability. These are extreme and pressing challenges where research is progressing quickly. But we are missing the ability to effectively share much of that knowledge with those who need it.

Reforms to the publishing system will accomplish part of that, and the increasing number of open access journals are a testament to the momentum that is building around the issue.

But beyond publishing, Swartz's death also asks us to take on larger questions about how knowledge is produced and disseminated.  We are enarmoured with technology. And it's easy to assume that all problems can be met by a tech fix.

But the principles that Swartz worked to make real are as much about social relationships as they are about the protocols that structure the internet:

Collaborative parnterships between researchers and non-academics, and plain language and non-specialist publications are also key parts of an effort to carry out good research and get it into the hands of those most able to put it to use.

photo: Time 


1 Response to "Aaron Swartz, Open Access Information, and Sustainability "

Alex Aylett said... 28 January 2013 at 14:01

On this thread,
the Journal of Industrial Ecology has just released an open-access special issue on Sustainable Urban Systems.

The link is below. The issue includes work by several key researchers in the field. (Some of them friends and colleagues.) All articles are available for a limited time as a free download.



This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

You can expect occasional updates, but not with the same frequency as in the past.

You can also find my writing on urban redesign and sustainability in ReNew Canada, The Mark, Sustainable Cities Canada, WorldChanging, and other more specialized academic publications.

Info on my consulting work, c.v. and current research focus is all here.