To Honor Aaron Swartz, Let Knowledge Go Free

Bringing knowledge to the public--not restricting it--should be the central mission of academia.

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Some people believe that the expense of publishing peer-reviewed journals justifies the high cost of access. But is this the only possible business model?

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When mobile technology began, many people believed that its growth would be expensive. Putting up cell phone towers was costly. Each handset was expensive. Payment plans were expensive. And yet mobile technology is now used as widely by the global poor as by the rich—because innovators thought up new business models. Today, most mobile technology use worldwide is prepaid. The less fortunate can pay for minutes and text messages as they can afford them, a few at a time. And in countries like Kenya, people can easily transfer money via their mobile phones. The need for a faster, a better, and more distributed way for people to communicate prompted disruptive innovation using technology and the creativity of individuals to redesign business models.

That, I believe, will be just as true for academic and scientific knowledge. Because some science literally saves lives, we have no other moral choice but to share its insights freely. Other ideas need to be widely shared simply because they may generate a new discovery that will change our lives, like the Internet. We must either create a new business model for sharing academic research, or at least, must further develop models that include open access for wider dissemination and use. I may not have the final answer for how that will happen. But I firmly believe in the academy's mission and the power of innovation both in our ivory towers and beyond to make this change.

The loss of Aaron Swartz has brought this movement to light once again. Using the hashtag #PDFTribute on twitter, many academics have been tweeting links to pdfs of their published articles. Bringing knowledge to the public is our central mission. In our age of interdisciplinary engagement, as we attempt to collaborate globally to save our climate, provide effective aid during disasters, and collectively move toward the next great discovery, even we academics cannot afford to keep information padlocked inside thick gates.

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