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Digital Activist's Suicide Casts Spotlight on Growth of Open-Access Movement

Aaron Swartz was threatened with criminal trial for downloading millions of academic articles. Although he may have employed questionable methods, the data-access principles he fought for are becoming widely embraced
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Flickr/Francisco Diez

When digital activist Aaron Swartz committed suicide January 11 as U.S. prosecutors assembled a criminal case against him, much anger from his peers was aimed at both the government and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology

"This feels like losing a kid brother," Matt Blaze, the director of the Distributed Systems Lab at the University of Pennsylvania, observed on Twitter last week. He, like thousands of others, spoke out in defense of the 26-year-old inventor, venting their wrath at the prosecutors who expected to bring Swartz to trial in April for bypassing security blocks at M.I.T. to download more than four million articles from the online academic repository JSTOR (for Journal Storage). The sad irony is that the principles of the Open Access movement, which shares Swartz's goal of making scientific research universally accessible, although not his methods, is becoming widely adopted—without sparking the attention of prosecutors.

On his blog, the Harvard University lawyer Lawrence Lessig praised Swartz's contributions to his Creative Commons and Rootstrikers efforts, but wrote, "The causes that Aaron fought for are my causes, too. But as much as I respect those who disagree with me about this, these means are not mine."

The movement rejects the idea that open access means "Napsterizing" scientific research. Instead, says Peter Suber, director of the Harvard Open Access Project and author of the 2012 book Open Access (MIT Press, 2012), the movement respects copyright and retains peer review. The goal, as he puts it, is "literally, clearing away obstacles and barriers so people can get to the content." He adds, "Open access is lawful and we're making progress through lawful means."

The movement dates to 2002, when the Budapest Open Access Initiative called for making peer-reviewed research literature freely available on the public Internet. The cost of journal subscriptions had risen faster than library budgets for decades. In 2005 the National Institutes of Health (NIH) became the first public funding agency to adopt a policy tying grant funding to open-access publication; the policy became mandatory in 2008. In 2006 the U.K. became the first country to have all its major public funding agencies adopt open-access policies.

"Some were never enforced," Suber admits, "but that's starting to change." Other countries, universities and agencies have followed—from Ireland to the University of Nairobi and two other universities in Kenya. "A lot of universities say they couldn't [adopt open-access policies] because they're not Harvard," Suber says, "but Kenya shows that it's desirable and possible for institutions of all kinds."

Generally, these policies take one of two types: "green," in which authors deposit copies of their papers in an institutional or subject-based online repository for free download, and "gold," in which authors publish in one of the more than 8,000 open-access journals. These finance their operation in myriad ways: Some are small, community-based, volunteer-run affairs. Others seek support from advertisers, sponsors, subsidies or institutional memberships, sell print copies or charge article-processing fees.

"We're not saying that all academic journals should go out of business," says Melissa Hagermann, senior program manager at the Open Society Foundation's Information Program, "but there are new models, and open-access journals have shown they can be sustainable."

Outside academia many people do not realize that traditional journals do not pay authors or reviewers. Universities and agencies pay twice: first in salaries and grants, second in subscription fees. The business is profitable: for 2011 Dutch publisher Elsevier declared approximately $1.2 billion in profits with an operating margin of 37.3 percent. But by April 2012, even Harvard found subscription prices unsustainable. The adoption of open-access policies, Suber says, is often led by faculty who want their work to have maximum impact.

Publishers have fought back, most recently in the U.S. with the 2011 Research Works Act, which sought to overturn the NIH open-access policy. The bill was withdrawn by its sponsors, Darrell Issa (R–Calif.) and Carolyn Maloney (D–N.Y.), after protests from scholars and scientists who threatened to boycott Elsevier, one of the bill’s leading proponents. In the U.K. there are concerns that the government's latest proposals favoring gold open access will divert money from university research budgets to journal publishers. If authors have to pay article processing or other fees to support the journals, those funds will come out of grant money. Currently, journal subscriptions are paid out of library and university budgets.

But the movement continues to grow, fueled by the need to grant access to the scientific literature to researchers in developing countries as well as to enable the growing trend of publishing material such as negative results that don't fit the space limitations and editorial agendas of traditional journals. It is fed, too, by stories like that of 15-year-old Maryland high school student Jack Andraka, whose access helped him invent a diagnostic test for pancreatic cancer that beats existing tests for cost, accuracy and speed by wide margins.

"The point of open access," Suber says, "is access for everybody who can make use of the information."

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