Free research! Swartz's cause lives on

Aaron Swartz in Boston

Internet activist Aaron Swartz killed himself on Jan.11 while facing federal charges, prompting backlash from the hacker group Anonymous. (Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

Research wants to be free.

Not free to perform. Quality academic research requires the sustained efforts of well-paid personnel and, at times, the use of expensive equipment.

Not free to archive. Storing the results and analysis of peer-reviewed studies in searchable databases housed on secure, reliable servers costs money.

Just free to read. For anyone. At any time. From any computer with Internet access.

This imperative was one of the major causes to which digital activist Aaron Swartz devoted his life, and that, in the wake of his suicide last weekend, may be his legacy.

Swartz, 26, a native of Highland Park, was facing federal felony charges for allegedly downloading more than 4 million academic journal articles with the intent to post them to public file-sharing sites. The extent to which the looming legal threat contributed to his decision to take his own life remains unclear, but his death has drawn perhaps transformative attention to the imperative above.

Research wants to be free.

Research is the bricks and mortar of knowledge and the ever-growing foundation of progress.

Meticulously, it builds on itself, occasionally destroying what came before. It inspires, it provokes, it disappoints. It finds real clues to human advancement and sometimes suggests false ones.

Research could not be free before the Internet came along. Its results were published mainly in obscure journals with tiny circulations and huge subscription fees, then stored away in hulking university libraries. Those with access to those libraries and a good idea of what they were looking for could usually find the papers they were in search of, but the work might as well have been locked up as far as the rest of us were concerned.

Now, of course, with every academic and nearly every student having easy access to online content, there's little reason for such journals to publish physical copies — indeed many no longer do — and no good reason to hide articles within institutional libraries or behind often towering paywalls.

To compensate the authors? No. They're paid by their universities or through research grants.

To compensate scholars who review the articles prior to publication? No. They usually perform such reviews without charge as part of their academic responsibilities.

To pay for editors, staff, office supplies and space on computer servers? Well, OK. But such costs are comparatively minimal and could easily be assumed into the costs of the research itself which — and here's the galling part — is often performed at public universities and funded largely by taxpayers.

And yet. Subscriptions to "some journals cost as much as $40,000 per year" per university, according to the Harvard Faculty Advisory Council's Memorandum on Journal Pricing, released in April, 2012.

"Harvard's annual cost for journals from these providers now approaches $3.75 million," said the memorandum. "Prices for online content from two providers have increased by about 145 percent over the past six years, which far exceeds not only the consumer price index, but also the higher education and the library price indices. … Moreover, some providers bundle many journals as one subscription, with major, high-use journals bundled in with journals consulted far less frequently."

Yes, I know it's rich — a university complaining about costs exceeding inflation, particularly a university as generously endowed as Harvard. But it's not for the institutions that activists such Swartz have been fighting, but for the individuals who want access to the information that in many cases they have already helped pay for.

We can debate the propriety of acts of civil disobedience such as those Swartz stood accused of, but there should be no debate about the justice of his cause.

Already academia is inching toward making research freely available — there are a growing number of open journals such as PLOS, a peer-reviewed journal of the Public Library of Science, where I found the paper that formed the basis of last Friday's column about kindness, for instance, and JSTOR, short for "journal storage, the not-for-profit database from which Swartz allegedly copied millions of articles, this month launched a major expansion of its "Register and Read" program allowing readers limited free access to articles in more than 1,200 journals.

The Twitter hashtag #pdftribute, created this week for scholars to tweet out links to their otherwise protected papers in honor of Swartz, had been used a reported 40,000 times.

This movement reflects the widespread and growing belief that Swartz articulated in a 2008 manifesto: "Sharing a wealth of knowledge … isn't immoral. It's a moral imperative."

You could look it up.

Comment on this column at chicagotribune.com/zorn

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