Aaron Swartz and the Open Access Civil Disobedience


Aaron Swartz has been formally charged with a set of violations based on his hacking the MIT mainframe in order to get into JSTOR’s archives and downloading a large segment of JSTOR’s published materials with the purpose of distributing them through one or more file sharing sites. Ars Technica has run a blow by blow account of how he managed to do it here. The full document is available here. Here is a snapshot of the overview of the offenses for which he is being charged:



Now while I agree that the methods he employed were questionable I fully and completely sympathize with his views on the scientific publication industry.

In a guerilla manifesto on open access largely attributed to him, Aaron Swartz states (1):

There is no justice in following unjust laws.  It’s time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

I have time and again, been foiled by the pay walls behind which articles I sought were hidden, so I realize where the anger in this manifesto is coming from. A lot of people are asking, and not without reason, too, whether he could have raised these questions in a more formal and legal manner. I believe he could. As someone who had been a part of a paradigm changing development when he was merely 14 years old (he developed RSS 1.0), I am sure he had the ingenuity and the ability to raise the issues in the proper fora, in the manner prescribed.

But would it have had any impact?

His outrageous act has raised a storm. People are talking about it, writing in their blogs, discussing on Twitter, how the “big pub” is monopolizing the treasure troves of knowledge. Today we are discussing why be held hostage at the hands of the protectors of copyright, the makers of unjust laws, simply because of his law-defying act. [Note: While it has attracted the attention it needed, yet, I must admit, at the pit of my stomach, there is a lingering discomfort arising from embracing a method which is legally questionable.]

He clearly did not intend to use the downloaded information or distribute them, since, from what I read, he returned all the downloaded information back to JSTOR, who are apparently not filing any charges against him (4), and he is being tried for a federal crime. He may end up with a maximum sentence of 35 years and a million dollars in fine.

Ridiculous, isn’t it?

In a world where we take an aeon to prosecute an Ajmal Kasab or fail to indict people involved in Bhopal gas tragedies (very Indian examples, I agree, but examples nonetheless), we are so prompt to jump down the neck of someone who is just doing something akin to checking out too many books from the libraries…

aaron swartz

Scholarly publishing is indeed a confusing concept. Greg Maxwell, says it all when he states (2):

Academic publishing is an odd system — the authors are not paid for their writing, nor are the peer reviewers (they’re just more unpaid academics), and in some fields even the journal editors are unpaid. Sometimes the authors must even pay the publishers.

And yet scientific publications are some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy. In the past, the high access fees supported the costly mechanical reproduction of niche paper journals, but online distribution has mostly made this function obsolete.

As far as I can tell, the money paid for access today serves little significant purpose except to perpetuate dead business models. The “publish or perish” pressure in academia gives the authors an impossibly weak negotiating position, and the existing system has enormous inertia.”

In a scathing step to protest against Swartz’s arrest, he has uploaded the whole bunch of papers from the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, onto piratebay.org, a peer to peer file sharing site. You can access these files, all 33 gigs of them (18, 592 files, in all) from here. I have started downloading them and I believe in a symbol of protesting this unfair system, you should too… as a token od support for the Aaron Swartzes and Greg Maxwells of today.

It is a sad and inconvenient truth that the institutes and bodies charged with the responsibility of being the agents of dissemination of knowledge are, in fact, becoming the hoarders of the same. Hidden behind pay walls, closed access and open access under a plethora of added conditions, it is a sad situation where we often see scientists having to ask around for a copy of the very same article that they themselves published (for they do not have access to their own work). I just hope that Aaron Swartz’s recklessness (3) does not take the focus away from the problem, because many people are trying to impeach him and divert the attention from the real issue at hand. [Note: while I am tempted to make references to Gandhian tactics of civil disobedience and voluntary incarceration afterwards, I am not going to do that to avoid more misdirections and more unnecessary debates on equating the two of them, although in my eye they were, on principle, doing the same thing].

Under the immense pressure from academia to either publish or perish, academics who are wending their way up the pyramid, who are lower down in the food chain of scientific eco system, are forced to accept whatever incredible copyright offers they are handed by the big pubs in order to gain that scientific credibility that is necessary for the furthering of one’s career and life.

In the face of this, I would therefore, like to come out in open support of people like Aaron Swartz and Greg Maxwell, who give the guerilla warfare for open access a name and a face. I come out in support of Reference Wanted, #IcanhazPDF and any other such effort which eats away at the opprobrious act of holding wisdom hostage for money…

If I can remove even one dollar of ill-gained income from a poisonous industry which acts to suppress scientific and historic understanding, then whatever personal cost I suffer will be justified . . . it will be one less dollar spent in the war against knowledge. One less dollar spent lobbying for laws that make downloading too many scientific papers a crime.

In Eliot’s words:

The endless cycle of idea and action,
Endless invention, endless experiment,
Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness;
Knowledge of speech, but not of silence;
Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word.
All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance,
All our ignorance brings us nearer to death,
But nearness to death no nearer to GOD.
Where is the Life we have lost in living?
Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?
Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
The cycles of Heaven in twenty centuries
Bring us farther from GOD and nearer to the Dust.

T.S. Eliot
The Rock (1934)


1. Suber, P. Guerilla OA. Open Access News. 21 August, 2008. http://www.earlham.edu/~peters/fos/2008/09/guerilla-oa.html

2. Roettgers J. Thousands of scientific papers uploaded to the Pirate Bay. GigaOm. July 21, 2011. http://gigaom.com/2011/07/21/pirate-bay-jstor/

3. Lee TB. Aaron Swartz’s reckless activism. Disruptive Economics, Forbes. July 20, 2011. http://blogs.forbes.com/timothylee/2011/07/20/aaron-swartzs-reckless-activism/

4. Singel R. Feds charge activist as hacker for downloading millions of academic articles. Threat Level, Wired. July 19, 2011. http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2011/07/swartz-arrest/

3 thoughts on “Aaron Swartz and the Open Access Civil Disobedience

    1. I just read your article. Its true that OA might tend to milk the academics for whatever their worth is, but the bigger houses, like the PLoS or the BMC journals (most of them, anyhow) have a very firm policy of post-peer-review fee waiver system in place. Also, the 1350 bucks that PLoS charges might seem normal for US/UK/developed nations based researchers, for us down in the developing side of the coin, it is a minor fortune of sorts…

      What can I say, eventually, Open Access appears to be lesser of the two evils when compared with a starkly pessimistic point of view. BTW, you have a very engaging blog. I wish there was an email subscription widget for that somewhere on the site…


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