In Swartz’s wake

An internet activist's death stokes a debate on the handling of academic information

The suicide of the programmer and internet folk hero, Aaron Swartz, has been followed by memorial services across the US and on the Net. Swartz, one of the most celebrated young talents in a very youthful technology, faced charges of data theft and computer fraud. He is said to have killed himself at the age of 26 since he was unable to face a jail sentence. The reason for his death remains contested, but the case has drawn attention yet again to the question of freedom of information. Should information be treated like another form of property? Should the right of access be at the pleasure of owners, and on terms set by them? Or is there a need for a slightly different approach? This is a difficult question with no final answer, since the knowledge economy will keep evolving.

Swartz's best-known campaign prevented the US government from legislating the Stop Online Piracy Act last year. But the campaign that is said to have cost him his life championed free access to academic information. The sequestration of learning in the hands of academic publishers is unfair and problematic, he believed, for the future of knowledge. Swartz was accused of leeching 4 million articles from the academic repository, JSTOR, via the network of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He had apparently planned to release these documents to the Net, giving free access to readers outside the academic system.

Academic information stands a little apart from other data products. Scholarly progress has always been sped up by sharing knowledge, especially across geographies and categories. Today, international, multidisciplinary work produces some of the most interesting developments both in the sciences and the arts. But sharing is mostly restricted to the academic system, with talent off-campus getting little access. As the idea of the university changes to accommodate distance learning, franchising and new forms of collaboration, it may be time to re-examine the way in which academic information is handled. It cannot be given away for free, as Swartz would have wanted, since the development of learning is expensive. But business models could be created to widen access while remaining fiscally prudent.

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