I saw an article on Yahoo! today about the death of Aaron Swartz. Swartz was a computer programmer who co-authored RSS 1.0 (If you subscribe to the feeds for either new posts or new comments it is thanks to a later version of RSS), was co-owner of Reddit, a Wikipedia editor and activist. He committed suicide on 11 January, seemingly due to depression and stress relating to charges against him with regards to his activism relating to the open access movement.
In 2011 Swartz was arrested and charged for illegally gaining entry to JSTOR, a digital archive of scientific journal articles, through MIT’s computer system and downloading over 4 million articles with the intention to distribute them on-line. The articles were all only accessible to subscribers and Swartz believed that the information should be shared freely. Although JSTOR dropped all charges against him, US attorney’s continued to press charges which could result in a $4 million fine or 50 years in prison.
The issue of open access, and related philosophies, has become a large issue, although there aren’t too many stunts like this. There is dissatisfaction with the current publishing methods which are often seen as over-priced. It’s because of these issues that over 13 000 academics signed an agreement to boycott Elsevier publishers because of their business practices. Open access publishing has also become available, such as from PLOS, which publishes 7 on-line journals that are free to access for anyone from anywhere in the world. People are attracted to open access for different reasons but for me the main attractions are both the philosophy and economics.
I’m one of the highest-ranked universities in Africa yet I still come across journal articles that I can’t access because my university can’t afford to subscribe to yet another journal. If we struggle to afford journal access then other African universities must have even less access. It’s possible to buy access to articles separately but that is still expensive (£22 for a Nature article and US$20 for a Science article). Even if you buy an article that looks useful it won’t necessarily have the information you need. That money, from an already tight budget, is then wasted. Not having access to the latest science means that some people might be going down dead ends when the answer they want is already available.
Aside from the economics I would rather live in a world where information sharing was the norm. If we don’t have access to information then we are not able to make good, informed decisions. That forms a major part of Ben Goldacre’s new book, Bad Pharma, where he criticises pharmaceutical companies that withhold data on drugs’ efficacy and safety. Subscription content is not nearly as bad as it is available, if you have the money, but it’s still not easily available and when someone can’t afford it it doesn’t seem all that different. Another issue with keeping science behind a pay wall is that some is government funded, i.e. it’s being paid for by the public, yet the public doesn’t have access to what they are funding.
There are many obstacles to open access but I sincerely hope it will succeed.