Aaron Swartz was a hacker. He committed suicide in January of this year at the age of 26. He killed himself because he feared he would be prosecuted and jailed for attempting to share medical information stored on the computers at the National Health Institute. The agency charges handsomely for this information, but Swartz believed that as taxpayers paid for the research, they were entitled to see the results. Federal prosecutors thought otherwise and the tragedy that unfolded has opened the public’s eyes about the dark side of scientific research data. As Michael Mechanic explains in Mother Jones:
The taxpayer-funded National Health Institute (NHI) is the world’s largest funder of biomedical research. Researchers are not paid for the articles they write for scholarly journals, nor for the time and expertise they donate by peer-reviewing and on editorial boards. Yet the publishers claim copyright to the researchers’ work and charge hefty fees for access. (The average subscription to a biology journal costs $2,163.) (“Let My Papers GO!” by Michael Mechanic, Mother Jones, Sept./ Oct 2013, pg. 27.)
Aaron Swartz and open source advocates like him threaten scientific journals like Science and The Lancet. That’s fine with the hackers. They object to companies that deny authors their copyrights and that bundle their products to force “university libraries to buy dozens of journals they don’t want to get the ones they need.” (Ibid, pg. 28.) Unfortunately, any efforts to alter the current system through Congress has met with fierce opposition from the publishers who argue dumping medical information on the public is absurd. The public wouldn’t understand it.
To skirt the road block in Congress, open source advocates decided to publish a scientific periodical of their own, one that looked “like the snootiest journals.. but used a different economic model.” (Ibid.27) They recruited a star-studded board of like-mind scientists to create PLos Biology. Their strategy worked so well, a second open source publication followed. That’s when the government stepped in and altered its policy. It ordered “all federal agencies with research expenditures greater than $100 million to propose policies that would let anyone read downloads and data-mine publicly funded papers after a waiting period.” (Ibid 67) That waiting period is now 6 months.
As fate would have it, today I received an email from one of my alma maters. It announced that Journal Storage, (JSTORES) one of the new open source websites, was now available. I know who to thank for that access. Thank you, Aaron Swartz.
(Picture of Aaron Swartz courtesy of www.empownetwork.com