Steal This Research Paper! (You Already Paid for It.)

Michael Mechanic | Mother Jones | September 1, 2013

Before Aaron Swartz became the open-access movement's first martyr, Michael Eisen was blowing up the lucrative scientific publishing industry from within.

ON A FRIGID DAY in January 2011, a surveillance camera captured footage of a young man sneaking into a wiring closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Once inside, he retrieved a laptop he'd plugged into the university's network. He then cracked the door to make sure the coast was clear and split, covering his face with a bicycle helmet to conceal his identity.

Over the previous several months, according to a subsequent federal indictment, Aaron Swartz—internet prodigy, RSS co-inventor, Reddit co-creator, and a fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard—had stolen nearly 5 million academic articles, including about 1.7 million copyrighted scientific papers held by JSTOR (as in "journal storage"), a digital clearinghouse whose servers were accessible via the MIT net.

To Swartz and his supporters in the "open access" movement, this was a noble crime. The taxpayer-funded National Institutes of Health (NIH) is the world's largest funder of biomedical research. Researchers are not paid for the articles they write for scholarly journals, nor for the time and expertise they donate by peer-reviewing and serving on editorial boards. Yet the publishers claim copyright to the researchers' work and charge hefty fees for access to it. (The average subscription to a biology journal costs $2,163.) It is "a moral imperative," Swartz argued in his 2008 "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto," that students, scientists, and librarians download and disseminate copyrighted scientific research to "fight back" against "this private theft of public culture."