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A crack in the armour? Or a knight in armour?

Many have argued for broader public access to academic research. Few, however, considered it as important as internet activist Aaron Swartz. The 26-year-old programmer pushed to make publications free to the public, including those held in the American repository for judicial documents (PACER, Public Access to Court Electronic Records) and JSTOR, which distributes scientific and literary journals on a subscription basis. Swartz was found dead in his apartment on Friday January 11th.

Traditional academic journals hold a prestigious position: faculty members are required to “publish or perish” and universities alone can pay their high subscription fees. In the internet era of free and widespread information, journals remain an almost impenetrable fortress with access granted to a small percentage of the population. Yet, academic research is in many cases funded by national governments and public agencies–in Canada, two main source of funding are the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Is it fair to publish the results of publicly funded research in journals to which only current university students and faculty have access? In fields like planning, which stress public participation and community dialogue, this is a major concern. Open Access journals have begun to address this, but with faculty tenure decisions hinging upon journal impact factors, publishing in traditional journals is still the desired option for most faculty members and graduate students.

Fighting against these restricted databases was Aaron Swartz, who used his programming skills as a weapon in the fight for public access to information. In 2008, believing that the PACER legal documents should be free to the public since they’re produced with public funds, he created a program to download millions of documents from free library accounts. The government did not press charges in that case, but it did three years later. Swartz was indicted by a federal grand jury in 2011 after an effort to provide free public access to JSTOR. He had downloaded nearly its entire library of publications–4.8 million documents in total. He faced a potential penalty of 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines.

On Wednesday, JSTOR announced that it would increase public access to its journal articles, giving limited free access to its over 1200 journals. Now anyone can sign up for an account and access up to three articles for free every two weeks. It’s an improvement on JSTOR’s Register and Read program, which saw 150,000 people register for free access to 76 journals during its 10-month pilot test. This month, JSTOR began allowing subscription-holding universities to give alumni access to their journals, following Sage Publications. The top 100 editors of Wikipedia will now also receive free access to JSTOR’s collection.

Is JSTOR’s recent–although limited–move toward public access the result of Swartz’s actions? Or was such a move inevitable in the internet era? Years from now, those of us in academia may well remember Swartz as an internet crusader who offered the public its first glimpse through the cracks in the armour surrounding academic journals.


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