UNE’s very own Associate Professor Nigel Andrew has led a team of researchers in reviewing the literature published around the world on climate change and insects. For those of you who are interested in entomology and climate change, you can read a little more about Nigel’s work here on the UNE News and Events blog, but there was also something else in the blog post that caught my attention in particular: PeerJ. According to the homepage, the PeerJ mission is to make “access to research free to all and affordable to publish for academic authors and their institutions.”
Why did I find this interesting? On 11 January 2013, a man by the name of Aaron Swartz was found dead and was believed to have committed suicide by hanging himself, although no suicide note was found. He was 26 years old when he died. Two years earlier, on 6 January 2011, Swartz had been arrested for illegally downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR. He was charged under the Computer Fraud and Abuse Act, and faced a fine of more than US$1 million, up to 35 years in prison, as well as restitution and confiscation of his assets.
Who was Aaron Swartz? He’s been described as an internet activist, computer programmer, political organiser and writer. Just Google his name and you’ll find more than 236,000,000 results. Read some of them. Why did he die? For downloading some journal articles? (OK, 4.8 million articles…) By downloading the articles, Swartz was protesting JSTOR’s power to limit academic research by making them available only to people or organisations who paid for subscriptions. The research was often funded by government grants and expanded public knowledge. He was planning to make the articles publicly available for free.
The American Library Association posthumously (first time ever) gave Aaron Swartz the James Madison Award for championing public access to government information. This year, JSTOR have made several million academic journal articles available publicly for free. The organisation even has a statement about Aaron Swartz on it’s homepage.
So, was it really fraud? Did the crime warrant the punishment? Should all academic journals be made open access for the benefit of all, not just those who can afford it?
The official statement, published on the website Remember Aaron Swartz, from his family and partner states:
“Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts US Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims. Meanwhile, unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community’s most cherished principles.”
In light of all this, his death seems like such a waste.
PS You can access the insect and climate change article, Assessing insect responses to climate change: What are we testing for? Where should we be heading?, here (for free!) and even download a PDF.