Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz passed away ten years ago, at the age of 26. During his short life he contributed to multiple projects, including Creative Commons, RSS, Markdown and reddit.

If you are interested in learning more about Aaron’s life, you can watch the biographical documentary The Internet’s Own Boy, which is freely available online. You can also still access Aaron’s website and read his old blog posts.

I don’t want to write a long post about Aaron’s life. Instead, I’ll take this chance to talk about Open Access, which was one of Aaron’s main battles as an activist. I’ll try to be concise and go straight to the point.

A word of warning: even though I pledged not to write “political” posts in this blog, I do have a strong opinion on this subject, and I won’t try to hide it.

Open access

Most academic journals make scientific articles available at very high prices, making them practically unaccessible for people who are not affiliated with a university in a wealthy country. To make things worse, the people involved in producing these articles - the scientists who write them and those who review them - do not get any revenue from this.

This system made sense before the Internet, when distributing journals actually required some effort. The only reasons academics rely on it nowadays are prestige and having their work reviewed. The latter is a necessary step for science, and not many peer-reviewed journals offer open access.

I believe the existence of academic journals that do not offer open access is unacceptable in the present day. As Aaron Swartz wrote in his 2008 Guerrilla Open Access Manifesto, sharing knowledge is a moral imperative. I do stand by this principle.

The Manifesto may have had little practical consequnces, but it has probably inspired Alexandra Elbakyan to create Sci-Hub in 2011. Sci-Hub is an online repository that gives free access to millions of research papers. This is of course illegal in most countries, but for many people it is the only way to access this material. For legal reasons the website is forced to change domain from time to time, but it is currently accessible at sci-hub.ru.

Thanks to the Internet we could all have easy access to an incredible amount of knowledge, but some of it is still locked behind a paywall. I am hopeful this will change, and the people who fought against this system will be remembered as heroes, not criminals. But the path to get there is still long.

Eulogy

Aaron is dead.

Wanderers in this crazy world,

we have lost a mentor, a wise elder.

Hackers for right, we are one down,

we have lost one of our own.

Nurtures, careers, listeners, feeders,

parents all,

we have lost a child.

Let us all weep.

Tim Berners-Lee