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Is it worth dying for Open Access: A tribute to Aaron Swartz

January 24, 2013 - 20:45 -- Bart G.J. Knols


Six days ago, on January 11, Aaron Swartz committed suicide. As a malariologist you may not know who he was (I also had not heard of him to be honest), and that's why I pay tribute to him here. Aaron's extraordinary life, during which he mobilised millions of people around the world to fight for freedom on the web and free access to information, amongst many other accomplishments, ended too soon (read about him here). Why he committed suicide remains unknown, but he was charged with a 35 years sentence to prison and a 1 million dollar fine, for downloading several million scientific articles from the JSTOR database. Articles for which he had in mind to make them publicly available to the world. Because he believed that scientific information needs to be available to those that can make good use of it and should not be locked behind paywalls. At MalariaWorld we believe the same. But was it worth dying for this cause?

In a way, Aaron was fighting for all of us. Remember: Our survey last year revealed that only 2% of the 8300+ members of MalariaWorld never have problems accessing scientific articles. Only 2%! Last year nearly half the scientific articles on malaria were available as 'Open Access', the other half remains locked behind a paywall. This is simply outrageous.

I feel awful about this. About paywalls, about Aaron's untimely death (he was only 26 years old). Murder will land you in jail for 10-15 years, so why was downloading scientific articles an offence that got 35 years and a million dollar fine? Imagine that happening to you at the age of 26...

The scientific world responded to Aaron's death with an outcry. Thousands of scientists started to put pdf's of their scientific articles online - look for 'pdftribute' to read more about this and read what is going on online here. Thousands of people fed up with the rules thought up by publishers to maintain their huge profit margins.

This week I received another email asking me to submit a manuscript to a journal (I receive several such emails every week). Asking me to submit the paper and then pay to have it published. They want my time (to write it) for free, and they want my money to publish it. And then make money out of it. It's a world that we (scientists) have created and are now a victim of. But, since we made it, we can also stop it. But when, I wonder, do we start waking up as a group?

Here's what we are planning at MalariaWorld. We want to establish a database with the more than 70.000 articles that were published on malaria between the end of the 19th Century and today. Imagine if we would have that... Recently I was informed that all articles published prior to 1998 can be posted online (and be freely accessible) if the author agrees to this. Even when these are restricted access papers publishers have no legal way of stopping this. Imagine a searchable database with all the pdfs of articles published between 1897 and 1998... We can do this, have the know-how on how to set it up (it needs serious programming) and would probably not cost more than 10-20 thousand dollars...any help from you regarding ideas on where we can get this funding is welcome.

Maybe we should name that database after Aaron - the 'Aaron Swartz malaria database'. To pay tribute to him, because nobody needs to die because of fighting such a worthy cause...


Submitted by Steve Smith on

Bart’s suggestion of an online database of malaria articles is a fabulous idea! … and long overdue.

I have a couple of suggestions:

• Some (much?) of the older literature won’t be available in digital form; it will need to be scanned and converted to PDF— possibly a meaningful task for a small army of volunteers. Since my retirement about a decade ago, I’ve been plugging away at a digital database of the literature on the Tabanidae — horse- and deerflies. The family has about 5000 species and there is a large literature, but over that decade I’ve made sizable dent in it, just on my own. I’ve also learned a lot about how to create high-quality, reasonably compact PDFs, even from poor-quality originals. If a group of volunteers is established to put together a malaria database, I’d be happy to share my experience on how to go about preparing digital copy.

• When I’m not working on bloodsucking flies I like to holiday in the Neotropics, for hiking and birdwatching. Given that interest, I’ve joined the NEOORN (NEOtropical ORNithology) List­Server — a group of researchers interested in the avian fauna of the Neotropical Region. Among many other services provided by the ListServer is a small-scale exchange of scientific papers — requests from scientists in Latin America for copies of both new and old literature are not uncommon; as in the malaria case, many of these researchers have little or no access to either new or old literature. A request made on the ListServer almost always generates an immediate response — someone ships the paper. Is this a model for helping ill-serviced malaria researchers with literature?

Steve Smith

Stephen M Smith, Dept of Biology, Univ. Waterloo, Waterloo, ON N2L 3G1 This address is for information only. I make no claim that my views are those of the Biology Department or of the University of Waterloo.