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


The above is from page 4 of more than 3K pages of internal emails from, 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.