This weekend, the Internet world mourned one of its heroes: Aaron Swartz, 26, a prodigy, programmer and well-known Internet activist, who hanged himself in his New York apartment on Friday. Swartz was to face an imminent trial for having downloaded some 4 million articles from JSTOR, a not-for-profit scholarly archive hosted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He faced extraordinarily severe charges — see here and here — carrying a possible penalty of 35 years in prison, and more than US$1 million in fines. Swartz is reported to have suffered from serious depression, but some — including his immediate family — have explicitly alleged that the pending charges contributed to his suicide. (Btw; serious depression is more common than one might think; see ‘Global survey reveals impact of disability‘ though few commit suicide.)

Online commentators have expressed indignation at the disproportion between the charges and Swartz’s alleged act. Lawrence Lessig, a law researcher at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, has posted a must-read analysis here. Alex Stamos, an expert witness for the defence in the case, also argues that the charges were over the top. Other analyses worth reading include those from Glenn Greenwald and from The Economist.

In a statement, Swartz’s family said: “Aaron’s death is not simply a personal tragedy. It is the product of a criminal justice system rife with intimidation and prosecutorial overreach. Decisions made by officials in the Massachusetts U.S. Attorney’s office and at MIT contributed to his death. The US Attorney’s office pursued an exceptionally harsh array of charges, carrying potentially over 30 years in prison, to punish an alleged crime that had no victims.”

Rafael Reif, the president of MIT, in a statement yesterday said:  “I want to express very clearly that I and all of us at MIT are extremely saddened by the death of this promising young man who touched the lives of so many. It pains me to think that MIT played any role in a series of events that have ended in tragedy.“ He also announced that he had asked Hal Abelson, a leading computer scientist, to assess MIT’s response in the case. JSTOR also released a statement, which mentioned its widely appreciated decision not to pursue charges in the case after Swartz returned the files he had taken.

Meanwhile, a campaign has also started on Twitter calling for researchers to post their papers openly online in reaction and commemoration — at hashtag #pdftribute.

In passing, Swartz was a past invitee to Science Foo Camp, an annual invitation-only informal gathering of hundreds of leading scientists, technologists and other leading creative lights, organized by Nature in collaboration with Google and O’Reilly Media — see here and here. See Swartz’s own account of part of the 2007 meet here.

This article is reproduced with permission from the magazine Nature. The article was first published on January 14, 2012.