Monday, January 14, 2013


You might have heard of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz a software developer and internet activist. Swartz co-authored the first RSS specifications at the age of 14 and was co-owner of Reddit. Later he also focused on sociology, civic awareness and activism and was a strong advocate for open access in general. He committed suicide at the age of 26 and was found dead in his apartment last Friday.

In July 2011, Swartz was indicted on federal charges of gaining illegal access to JSTOR, a subscription-only service for distributing scientific and literary journals, and downloading 4.8 million articles and documents, nearly the entire library. The pending charges were potential penalties of up to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines and many believe that these and the pressure build up by prosecutorial overreach is what eventually killed him.

Apparently he had struggled with depression for a while already. Depression is a very serious and unfortunately underestimated problem. It is not "just a phase" that people go through. It won't go away without proper treatment and can lead to a number of other serious problems if it is not dealt with properly.

Although I don't believe in any conspiracy theories out there and I find it exaggerating to make others responsible for someones suicidal death, I can fully understand that a person with chronic depression facing disproportional charges for something meant positive doesn't see any other way out of this dilemma. That is the tragic in this story which eventually took the life of a bright mind that had already accomplished so much for the cause of open access in all its forms.

As a reaction to Aaron Swartz's death supporters responded with an effort called #pdftribute to promote open access. In a tribute to him, researchers have begun posting pdf's to Twitter to honor his campaign for open access. 

I have long pondered if I should join them and post my pdf's elsewhere but I think many are already public as I tried to publish and review as much as possible open access for years. There is also the growing ResearchGate which is home to quite a few pdf's but in all honesty this won't get us anywhere but to serve as a tribute. What we need is a change of publishing attitude. Researchers should exclusively publish open access. Jonathan Eisen has assembled a great list of things we can to do to really support open access on his Tree of life blog. I intend to change my habits accordingly and consequently publish and review only in real open access journals from now on - or simply here in my blog.

However such paradigm shifts also require a change in attitude if it comes to valuing a scientists work. Search committees and funding agencies have to stop looking for high impact factor publications but more for open access contributions. After all it is mostly tax payers money that pays us. We owe it to them to make our research accessible instead of wasting some of it to pay for insanely high subscription fees. We just need to start with it. #pdftribute could serve as a good starting point for such a movement but it is sad to realize that again it needed such a tragedy to get the ball rolling.

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