On Open Access and Aaron Swartz

We are all aware of how the Internet’s networking potential has offered the human race an unprecedented globalized means for immediate sharing and exchanging of media and information. However, and inasmuch as this sounds like a powerful tool to leverage human knowledge and help spread it among more human minds, this potential for sharing and exchanging has raised many problems to established industries dealing with publishing and delivery of media and information.

Cases like Napster, The Pirate Bay, Aaron Swartz and many others were all conflicts between an established way of doing things and a disruptive technology allowing us to do things in a different way. And which of these two ways is the best for us as a global human society and as a human race? What follows will try to provide an answer.

The freedom to access information by anyone who seeks it has never been possible before as much as it is today with the help of the internet, but even 18 years after the commercialization of the internet, a large amount of information still lies behind access barriers erected by publishing institutions and copyrights, thus making the access to it very limited and allowed only to the privileged few who can afford it.

However, and even when the publishing industry is deep rooted in the current ecosystem and armed with financial capabilities that allow aggressive lobbying among policymakers and lawmakers, it is too hard to put a case against open access, especially when it comes to research papers and specialized magazines/journals’ articles detailing results of advanced research. The simple reason for which it is hard to put a case against it is that Open Access benefits literally everyone; through it researchers’ work will get more exposure and will easily reach the audience they’re seeking to reach. And readers in their turn will benefit too because they will have access to a wide source of information, and knowledge will spread to reach a bigger number of interested individuals instead of being trapped and available only for a privileged few.

Is it a human right to have an access to the largest amount of information and knowledge possible? I personally believe it is, it is neither a sign of prowess nor intellectual superiority when certain people lock up information and knowledge, discovered and achieved mostly by the help of public funding, and deprive other people from reaching it. When information becomes available to every single inquisitive mind, anyone can become the next internet prodigy or the next superstar physicist or economist or medical researcher etc.
Someone, who is proactively seeking knowledge and information, has the right to reach it because he/she is willing to put the needed effort to harness its potential and transform it to something useful for him/her and for the society itself. And that’s why open access is of an essential importance, it promotes fairness in society, gives a chance to those who are willing to work and make an effort. It simply helps in accelerating research and consequently advancing knowledge and technology when more minds are putting their intellectual and mental processing power to improve, add, discover and build on the available information.

That’s how Open Access establishes a win-win situation for everybody, except for publishers who, by irrationally increasing prices, make exorbitant profit margins out of something they didn’t put any effort to create and produce. Which is a perverse way to do business, to say the least.

Open Access defined

In a minimalist definition, Open Access is the type of access provided by authors who, unconstrained by a direct motive of financial gain, allow their readers to reach the content they provide without charging a fee.

What makes it possible?

-Digitization and availability of information in its soft form instead of the traditional ink on paper and books, coupled with the ability to share at a global scale through the Internet.

-Copyright holder consent, and that’s what distinguishes two categories of content providers/authors. The first category consists of scholars, academics and researchers and the second consists of musicians, moviemakers and the remaining types of authors.
The difference between these categories stems from how they traditionally transfer their copyrights to publishers. Scholarly journals and publishers don’t pay authors for their research articles, while it’s not the case of musicians, moviemakers, and traditional novelists. And that’s why the scholarly authors group is free to consent to OA without losing revenue. The academics’ culture of writing for impact rather than money makes OA even more adapted to their goals and mindset, and it’s natural that OA is taking off among this group of authors.

How is it officially defined and framed?

Open access was officially defined in three public statements:

The three statements revolve around the main idea of the availability of information/knowledge on the public internet and the permission for the user to read, download, copy, distribute, print, etc. without financial, legal or technical barriers other than those required to gain access to the internet itself. The only condition for reproduction and distribution is to give authors control over the integrity of their work and the right to be properly acknowledged and cited.

Types of Open Access:

Open Access is usually offered in two degrees, Gratis Open Access and Libre Open Access.
Gratis OA guaranties a free of charge access but not more free than that, users should seek permission for any additional usage (reprinting, quoting significant amounts of text, etc.)
Libre OA is free of charge and also free of some copyrights and licensing restrictions. Usage permissions are usually defined by a creative commons license.

Varieties of Open Access:

There are two defined varieties through which OA is delivered, Green OA and Gold OA.

Green OA: It consists of specialized repositories where researchers/authors can deposit their work in a step that consists of self-archiving and public publishing at the same time. The published work is usually not peer reviewed and the interesting particularity is that most of the toll-access authors are legally allowed to publish their raw work in Green OA repositories before sending it to the Toll-Access journal.

Examples: The famous physics community repository arXiv.org, that later expanded to include astronomy, mathematics, computer science and many other scientific fields. It was in this repository that the aloof Russian mathematician Grigori Perelman has published his solution to Poincaré's Conjecture, one of the millennium prize problems that resisted a score of mathematicians since 1904.

Gold OA: It’s the open access counterpart of toll access journals. They are peer-reviewed journals that are accessible without a fee.
Example: The Springer open series of journals http://www.springeropen.com/ spanning many fields and offered by the traditional publisher Springer who partly opted for OA with this move.

Aaron Swartz

Aaron Swartz was a prominent if not the most prominent personality in the effort to promote open access and make it mainstream. He ended his life in January 2013 as he was entangled in the implications of his bulk-downloading of a large number of academic journal articles from JSTOR.

JSTOR is a toll access digital library having the majority of its content only accessible by subscription. The library reached an agreement with Swartz regarding the incident but the US federal prosecution went on to press charges that exposed Swartz to a possible penalty of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. The case was still pending when Swartz committed suicide.

With major software development achievements since his teen years, most of Swartz work revolved in one way or another around sharing information. He was involved in the creation of the RSS web feed format, the Creative Commons organization that is playing a leading role in the licensing and legal framing of open content, he also founded a company that later went on to merge with, and contribute to the development of Reddit, the social news sharing website.

He later moved on to become an Internet/social activist working to promote transparency in government and aiming to enact what he called progressive policies, and he played an instrumental role in blocking the Stop Online Piracy Act in the US that was threatening to a large extent the freedom of sharing information on the Internet.

But the turning point in his activism career that is in direct relation to the subject I’m discussing here was his notorious “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto” that you can find here. It's a manifesto inciting people to join him in his struggle for Open Access. He started it with “Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves” and went on demanding to fight back against large publishers and corporations locking up knowledge and information to greedily make enormous profits. He ended it by calling for a civil disobedience against unjust laws to oppose what he called a private theft of public culture. And he explicitly called to take information wherever it is stored and share it around in what he described as a Guerilla Open Access.
It is in this spirit that he went on to download the large amount of articles from the JSTOR. And one cannot question the nobility of what he was trying to achieve and most of all the important and positive implications of what he was demanding and what he was so passionately working to achieve. But his approach to solving the problem in a David vs Goliath style was extreme in my opinion and cost him his life at the end. The goal is achievable without falling in the trap of direct clashing with established laws that are clearly in favor of publishers who lobbied to create them in the first place. Change can be achieved with the right amount of pressure and with perseverance over time.

I believe that Open Access is a self-promoting issue, it just makes sense, it’s a simple concept beneficial to everyone and will help to further develop our society and the human civilization as a whole. You can’t oppose it without standing on immoral grounds and without being politically incorrect. And all it needs is further promotion, more awareness campaigns to point the attention of the general public to the subject and to push it to the forefront of public debates. Legislators and policy makers won’t be able to sustain the pressure of staying on the opposing side and reforms and changes in laws will be achievable. Because, and as Aaron Swartz himself said it “Try as you might, you can’t beat reality” and the reality here is that Open Access is what makes sense for everybody and nothing can hold it from taking over the way of how information and knowledge are distributed, all it takes is time.

In the mean time, the work and contributions of a large number of individuals in the open access movement to structure and define open access and create legal frameworks for licensing open content will further push the concept of Open Access and help in its proliferation among the public. There is a well-crafted solution at the table that is available for everybody; Open Access will be inescapable.

Even with the disagreements one can have with Aaron Swartz on how he approached the subject, we can only salute his fervent support for a right cause and his passion about making it a reality, he was an exceptional individual and what he faced was an injustice that he didn’t accept, ultimately deciding to put an end to his life.

It’s hard to understand how such a thing happens when for example people who almost put the US and global economy to their knees in 2008 walked away untouched, with large amounts of money and golden parachutes on top of it. But that’s how things are and maybe we don’t deserve people with strong ideals Like Swartz to stay with us for a long time.

But the legacy will continue and Open Access will continue to advance in bold steps, the latest of them was the adoption of the University of California of an open access publishing policy in which the university commits to make its research articles freely available to the public. More on it here.


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