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Inside Higher Ed: Reacting to Aaron Swartz's suicide

By Scott Jaschik, for Inside Higher Ed


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The suicide of Aaron Swartz, who was a leading and controversial figure in the hacking and open-access movements, has reverberated through higher education in the US and beyond.

Many academic advocates for making journal articles and scholarly research findings freely available online considered him a hero. Praise for him came even from many who disagreed with the extent of his use of hacking to make his point. And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced yesterday that it would review its role in his legal struggles.

A federal grand jury in 2011 indicted Swartz for the theft of millions of journal articles through the MIT account of subscription service JSTOR, which distributes academic journal articles.

Swartz wanted to make all of the articles freely available. The US authorities said that he used an MIT guest account, even though he did not have a legal right to do so. Had Swartz lived for his trial, he faced millions of dollars in fines and decades in prison if convicted.

The 26-year-old's suicide came days after JSTOR announced a major expansion of free access to content from 1,200 journals. While there has been some speculation online that his legal troubles may have led to his suicide, friends have noted online that Swartz - who was found dead in his New York apartment - battled depression (and was public about doing so).

JSTOR issued a statement on 12 January in which it called Swartz "a truly gifted person who made important contributions to the development of the Internet and the web from which we all benefit". The statement said that JSTOR "regretted being drawn into [the legal case] from the outset, since JSTOR's mission is to foster widespread access to the world's body of scholarly knowledge".

The statement also noted that "Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011".

Much of the online commentary about Swartz in the wake of his death was harshly critical of the federal prosecution of him, and of MIT for not taking a public stance against the way the government has pursued the case.

Lawrence Lessig, the Roy L. Furman professor of law and leadership at Harvard Law School, and an expert on cyberlaw issues, blogged that JSTOR's leaders, to their "great credit...declined to pursue their own action against Aaron, and they asked the government to drop its [action]. MIT, to its great shame, was not as clear, and so the prosecutor had the excuse he needed to continue his war against the 'criminal' who we who loved him knew as Aaron."

A statement from Swartz's family and partner also criticised MIT. The statement said, in part, that "unlike JSTOR, MIT refused to stand up for Aaron and its own community's most cherished principles".

Yesterday afternoon, MIT president L. Rafael Reif sent an email message to students and faculty members in which he announced a review of MIT's actions in the case.

"I will not attempt to summarize here the complex events of the past two years. Now is a time for everyone involved to reflect on their actions, and that includes all of us at MIT," wrote Reif. He added that there would be a "thorough analysis of MIT's involvement from the time that we first perceived unusual activity on our network in fall 2010 up to the present".

In his message, Reif also noted that Swartz was admired by many at MIT, although he had no formal affiliation there. "Aaron Swartz, a gifted young man well known and admired by many in the MIT community, took his own life. With this tragedy, his family and his friends suffered an inexpressible loss, and we offer our most profound condolences. Even for those of us who did not know Aaron, the trail of his brief life shines with his brilliant creativity and idealism," Reif wrote.

On Twitter, many scholars honored Swartz by posting their own journal articles in freely available places, and posting links using the hashtag #pdftribute.

Other scholars are using the hashtag to announce that they will only publish in open-access journals, to suggest strategies for avoiding paywalls (such as checking researchers' home pages), or to say that they have refused to review or plan to refuse to review submissions for journals with paywalls.

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