The suicide of a radical advocate of open access to academic research has elevated the topic to the forefront of conversation in the US, and could ultimately widen the availability of documents and prompt copyright reform.
The number of academic papers open to all without charge has increased rapidly in recent years, even before Aaron Swartz, an open-access activist, was found dead in his Brooklyn apartment.
Mr Swartz, 26, co-founder of Reddit, the social news and entertainment website, was set to face trial in a federal court in Boston in April. He had been charged with using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s network to illegally download some 4 million documents from the JSTOR archive, a non-profit portal that charges fees for access to scholarly journal articles. The act was allegedly perpetrated in 2011.
Thousands of academics worldwide responded to Mr Swartz’s death by posting their work online for free in tribute.
Other supporters illegally downloaded further journal articles from JSTOR, and the hacker group Anonymous briefly disabled the MIT homepage in remembrance.
But it is the saga’s long-term effects that are likely to be the most dramatic.
In the statement that it used to replace the MIT homepage, Anonymous joined a chorus of criticism calling for the reform of copyright and computer-crime laws.
The university itself, which has been criticised for its handling of the case, set up a committee to review its actions. And there are prospects that a proposed law that would require the results of government-funded research to be published without charge, introduced annually since 2006 without success, may now find fresh momentum.
The number of scholarly papers worldwide to which access is unrestricted rose 10-fold to nearly 200,000 a year between 1999 and 2009, according to the open-access journal PLOS One. That increase has been propelled in part by the desire of authors to maximise the impact of their research and the number of citations it attracts, often a factor in tenure or promotion.
“There is a definite mindshift going on in academic writing. It’s no longer ‘just get published’: it’s ‘get published, but also get seen everywhere’,” said Aaron Dobbs, electronic resources librarian at Shippensburg University and councillor-at-large at the American Library Association.
But widening access further is a complex issue: it is in the interest of universities with academic presses to charge for monographs, and private publishers of academic journals profit by controlling access.
Some for-profit journals also benefit professional associations, which depend on their cash to subsidise conferences and other activities. And even non-profit journals face costs for salaries, printing and digitising content.
“The problem with a tragedy, not just this one, is that people rightly react emotionally,” said Cathy Davidson, co-director of the PhD Lab in Digital Knowledge at Duke University and co-author of The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age (2010). “That is not always the best way to clearly unravel a complicated and disastrous legal situation.”
However, she added: “This might be one of those iconic moments that make people aware that something is wrong.”