Aaron Swartz found dead, but lives on with Open Access

If it weren’t for Aaron’s heroic actions to release academic research articles in 2011, I am unsure if PeerJ would have ever been born. 

Today’s news was shocking. Aaron Swartz was found dead from apparent suicide on the 11th of January, 2013 at the age of just 26. For the science community and Open Access advocates, Aaron was the man responsible for the (near) liberation of all pay-walled JSTOR content in mid 2011. He also co-wrote the first RSS 1.0 specification at the age of 14 and led the early development of Reddit. 

JSTOR and MIT eventually dropped the civil case against him (publicly anyway), but the U.S. government continued criminal proceedings against him. JSTOR, it should be noted, was not his first attempt at freeing information. Aaron was facing up to 35 years in prison for the act of setting academic research free. It’s unknown if this was the reason for his suicide, but that’s not why I am writing. 

The events around JSTOR and Aaron’s prosecution were probably the final straw for me. What kind of world do we live in, where such harsh punishment is sought for liberators of publicly funded information? The indictment of Aaron and the severity of the probable punishment angered me.

I wrote the following in July 2011 after learning about Aaron’s fate:

Will the JSTOR/PirateBay news be Academic Publishing’s Napster moment? i.e. end of the paywall era in favor of new biz models?

(Twitter reference)

Something had to be done. I wanted to turn Aaron’s technically illegal, but moral, act into something that could not be so easily thwarted by incumbent publishers, agendas or governments. Over the next few months I let that desire build up inside, until one day the answer came in the Fall of 2011.

It was then that the groundwork for PeerJ was first laid; a new way to cheaply publish primary academic research and let others read it for free. Aaron was significantly responsible for inspiring the birth of PeerJ and what I do now trying to make research freely available to anyone who wants it. 

I hope that when the history books are written in decades time, that Open Access crusaders like Aaron will still be remembered. My thoughts go out to Aaron’s friends and family. Know that Aaron’s light and efforts will live on. Thank you, Aaron, for inspiring us.