My days and thoughts....

Blog covering some selected happenings in my life.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Martyr Aaron Swartz and my biggest disappointment in 2012

I personally didn't meet Aaron Swartz. Of course I didn't, I haven't even heard of him before his much publicized death\suicide. Well not really, I have came across his simple but powerful web server. However, almost many people over the internet have came into contact with one of his other more popular contribution to our internet experience: the RSS protocol which he co-authored. Well, many non geeks will not know or appreciate what RSS is, but at least every single firefox user who has installs the browser for the first time would have the BBC live news update feed (Feed Location Site Location; If you know how can I make it so that you can be able to drag it to your address bar comment me). Also many websites have live news feed use it, Google Reader and Blog Aggregators like the ones this blog was subscribed to ( - These use the RSS protocol. Actually he was only 13 years old when he participated in that. He was a prodigy who haven't got to eat fava beans and have his IQ diminish as we say about smart kids in Egypt.

But this is not only his contribution. He also was an open access advocate for research. Personally, my biggest disappointment of 2012 (aside than the failure and setback to reform in Post Mubarak Egypt) was the fact that I learnt during a graduate seminar course that publishing academic peer reviewed papers cost money; not just any amount of money, but that can reach a hefty price of $5000 USD!!!! Already academic institutions pay a lot for accessing academic indexing and database services, individuals pay also for accessing single articles. Elsevier's Biochimica et Biophysica Acta, costs $20,930 USD as per this article in the Guardian. For example accessing a single article served by Springer costs $40. The American University in Cairo for example doesn't have access to groups like Elsevier and Nature Publishing Group. (Well technically I can order a paper using the document delivery system, the Illiad, but have to endure a 2-4 days wait at AUC). Publishing groups makes billions in dollars of profits out of our efforts, people working in academia and research. According to the previous link, Elseviers profit were more than 1 Billion USD in 2010!!! That's the real motive behind writing this blog post before the death of Aaron by a month.

Swartz allegedly downloaded 4 million papers from JSTOR archives through the MIT network. He did so to prove a point, and eventually assured JSTOR that he won't make them available. First he used his affiliation with Harvard to access the library system then he had his laptop physically connected to their network. He was eventually captured by the US Secret Service which is equivalent to a branch of the State Security in Egypt – Amn El Dawla. More on how it happened here: He was psychologically bullied by the US justice system through Carmin Ortez, a prospect candidate to govern Massachusetts . If he stole the hard disk he would have been charged with misdemeanour's and paid a fine, but they charged him with 13 felony counts carrying about 50 years in jail. They blackmailled him to jail him only 6 months instead of going for trial. Eventually out of frustration he committed suicide. JSTOR dropped the case as they posted on their website in 2011 and didn't even press with charges. It is the MIT and the DA who continued the process.

Well, this raises many ethical questions. Without science and research, there will be no civilization. Research requires a lot of funding (ask the tech guys or those working in pharmaceuticals). A decent end product, may it be a medication or a breakthrough image detection alternative reality gadget, has years of hard work of research (and investments) behind them. Shouldn't this knowledge, if it is life saving, be provided for free (the knowledge)? But what about the efforts of people behind it? Well what about those who want to take it a step ahead and improve the research by making their own? Those who want to share their results? Of course maintenance and running costs of servers that host these are high. Also part of the costs before the last decades went to the actual hard copy printing and ink. Although I had a professional stint of my career in research but I didn't get into much details regarding the grants and funding, but it seems publishing costs eats a lot of funding grants. I will check with some research professors and update that later on.

I do not necessarily accept the actions of late Aaron (may he RIP). Actually I have access to JSTOR account through my AUC library account. I would help friends by getting articles from it when in need. I personally ask my friends doing their graduate studies abroad to fetch me some articles for research. However, the means through which the justice system in the USA reacted towards him is questionable. May be he is hunted down for his activities against SOPA. Usually such brave moves that societies may disregard of bring true and real change. I am not sure if this can be said to be an ugly side of capitalism buts its definitely an abuse of authority, and power, and corruption.

As with the faltering revolutionary trend going on in Egypt since the Jan 25 uprising, usually deaths related in confrontations with the government or conspiracies are labelled martyrs. Hence, I declare Aaron Swartz as a martyr. I am not that of an activist to call for a sit-in at the US Embassy in protest of the actions of the District Attorneys. Anyways, its not safe due to ongoing clashes in Qasr Ainy street. So the least I can do is to share this petition to remove Carmen Ortiz from office. It had already passed the necessary threshold but a bigger number would cause a bigger impact. Only American citizens would be able to sign it though.
Some people have wrote this little script bookmarklet: the JSTOR Liberator to download articles from JSTOR. Well JSTOR hasn't pressed charges as previously stated! I think more effort and supporting and promoting open access journals should be made, actually from the writer and then from those who seek to cite sources. Impact factors (which is a not that fair systems of grading how credible journals are) would increase. May be also expressing solidarity and participating in Hactivists attempts in DDoSing and defacing websites related. Well I don't think I will ever be admitted or be accepted to MIT, so I fear nothing.

Read More Here

Know more About Aaron and his Cause here

Support Open Access Journals like PLOS here

Labels: , , ,