In Aaron Swartz's Memory

Twitter icon
Facebook icon
Google icon
LinkedIn icon
e-mail icon
January 13, 2014

Saturday marked the one-year anniversary of the tragic death of Aaron Swartz, an Internet icon, web activist, and computer genius, who fought tirelessly for open access to information and the free diffusion of knowledge. Aaron believed that knowledge should be freely available to everyone across the globe, and although we have by no means reached this lofty goal, by any measure, 2013 was a watershed year for the Open Access movement. 

In February, the White House announced a landmark policy Directive, a major achievement for both open access and open government, which calls on federal agencies with annual research and development budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with free and unlimited online access to the results of that research no more than 12 months after publication in a peer reviewed journal.

A major bill was introduced in Congress, the Fair Access to Science and Technology Research (FASTR) Act, which would require federal agencies with research budgets of $100 million or more to provide the public with online access to articles reporting on federally funded research no later than six months after publication in a peer-reviewed journal. The bipartisan, bicameral bill builds upon the success of the NIH public access policy model – a 2008 model that opened the gateway to the human genome project and more recently the brain mapping initiative. These landmark programs demonstrate quite clearly how opening up access to taxpayer funded research can accelerate the pace of scientific discovery and lead to innovative new treatments and technologies.

We saw a growing trend of higher education institutions actively working to maximize access to and sharing of research results. In California, a huge victory was reached with the passage of an Open Access Policy ensuring that future research authored by faculty at all ten University of California campuses will be made available to the public free of charge. UC is the first major U.S. system to pass a system-wide Open Access policy, building on the example set by dozens of individual schools, ranging from Harvard University to MIT, the University of Kansas to Oberlin College who now explicitly make their research available to the public online, at no cost. 

For the first time, we saw policy action around Open Access on the state level as well. Strong Open Access legislation was introduced in California and New York, and Open Access also moved forward in Illinois with the passage of legislation in August – with more on the horizon for 2014.

Internationally, the European Commission affirmed the principle of Open Access to the results of publicly funded research across the European Union. Horizon 2020, the EU’s largest-ever research and innovation program, requires that articles reporting on the results of the more than 80 billion Euros in scientific research it funds be made openly accessible to the public no later than six months after publication in the life and physical sciences, and 12 months in humanities and social sciences. New Open Access legislation also passed in Argentina and Peru, with proposed legislation on the books in numerous countries around the world.

As we look to 2014, there’s still a great deal of work to be done. The White House Memorandum called on federal agencies and departments to submit a draft plan to the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) by August 22, 2013; however, none have been publically released. Transparency is a necessary component to meeting the objectives detailed in the Memorandum, and as the Directive clearly states, all stakeholders should and will have the opportunity to adequately evaluate the plans before they become final.  

There are also attempts to roll back the progress made in the Directive. For example, one section of the FIRST Act circulating in Congress must be stopped. It would slow the pace of science by restricting public access to articles reporting on federally funded research for up to three years after initial publication. This stands in stark contrast to the policies in use around the world, which call for maximum embargo periods of no more than six to 12 months.  

Instead of imposing roadblocks such as this language in FIRST and other initiatives that limit public access, we must actively support federal agencies’ effective implementation of the White House Directive and legislation such as FASTR.

Today, we honor Aaron Swartz’s memory and commend other activists whose commitment never waivers and who keep pushing us toward better and more modern policy.