Download academic PDFs? You might get punched in the face

Courtesy of JSTOR. Well, hopefully not JSTOR as an organization, but at least one of their employees thinks you should get knocked out. That was just learned from a Freedom of Information Act request obtained from the Aaron Swartz saga. You can view all of the files obtained from the FBI, Secret Service, MIT, JSTOR, US Attorney’s Office and others at swartzfiles.com


The above is from page 4 of more than 3K pages of internal emails from ITHAKA.org, which is the non-profit responsible for the JSTOR digital library (whose mission is “to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge”). It’s a couple of systems administrators communicating in the context of high download activity going on at MIT (which we later learn was Aaron Swartz downloading academic papers).

Sadly, despite its mission, JSTOR  believes it is no longer capable of sustaining itself in the digital era without resorting to restricting access to knowledge. The Internet and World Wide Web, designed to spread information, have changed everything, sometimes ironically.

For its part, JSTOR settled a civil suit with Aaron Swartz out of court, and later told the US Attorney’s office in Massachusetts that it no longer had an interest in further proceedings. The US Gov’t didn’t stop, however.

Getting punched in the face was the least of Aaron’s worries. The FBI had much worse in mind for him (and succeeded in doing) for the act of downloading PDFs. It culminated in the unnecessary loss of his life.

There’s too much in the FOIA for any one person to really go through entirely, but have a perusal of the documents and let’s remember what Aaron stood for, and that we can do better when it comes to being stewards of the world’s academic knowledge. As I’ve stated before on this blog, without Aaron there may have never been the motivation to start the journal PeerJ. News of Aaron in 2011 was the catalyst to finally say, “Nothing about the outrageous costs in publishing is changing. What can I do?” Thankfully Pete Binfield agreed with me and we set out to make public access to research faster, cheaper to produce, and most importantly free to download. No one deserves a punch in the face for pursuing academic knowledge.


When stealing isn’t stealing - The most disturbing part of the Aaron Swartz story

Probably the most disturbing thing to me about the Aaron Swartz tragedy is this statement in 2011 from US Attorney Carmen Ortiz:

“Stealing is stealing whether you use a computer command or a crowbar, and whether you take documents, data or dollars.”

That is teaching our children that the law is always correct and that discretion should not be used when enforcing the law. It’s teaching our children not to question what they are being told by those in power. Had the American fore-fathers believed that “treason is treason” then the United States would have never had its Revolution and founding.

There is no physical law that governs the Universe that outlines stealing, killing, lying, etc. These are human fabrications to govern us as a society, tribe, and culture. We equally have the capacity to dictate when stealing isn’t stealing, or when an act of treason is the right thing to do as the American fore-founders discovered. That is how we advance as a  civilization.

There is a tremendous difference between stealing for personal gain, and “stealing” [1] to release academic papers paid for with tax-payer money. A true leader would recognize that. It’s been reported that Carmen Ortiz had political ambitions to one day run as Governor of Massachusetts. Is that the kind of leader a state would want? A false leader who doesn’t recognize when an act has morally justified grounds? A real leader would act to make changes, not throw the book at someone.

MIT should be ashamed as well, whether they were actively pressing charges or passively standing by [reports are conflicted over this]. MIT as well is supposed to be leading us. In the past they were one of the first universities to offer free and open classroom lessons online. Here, they failed miserably to lead by example that academic research should be made open.

The Aaron Swartz story is bigger than just a 26 year-old doing some computer hijinks and getting bent-over by those in a position of power. It’s even bigger than the importance of Open Access to academic research. It’s surfacing some major issues that we have in society in both the U.S. and beyond about true leadership [note: I am a US citizen currently residing in London, UK]. Ortiz was put into a position to use her discretion. Instead, she let her ambitions dictate Aaron’s fate.

At the end of the day, if it is against the law to steal whether morally motivated or not, then you’ve broken the law. Laws can be changed though. New countries can be formed. And leaders in power can use their discretion to apply fair judgment, not to further their own ambitions. Where have all the true leaders gone?


1. Note that Aaron wasn’t even technically stealing in terms of the law, at most it was breach of contract [according to several reports].


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.