A fortnight ago, support for the principle that research papers should be freely available flared up into a sudden flash-fire of tweets, blogs, news articles and online activism. That was in reaction to the federal indictment of computer coder and activist Aaron Swartz, who downloaded over 4 million articles from JSTOR, the US-based archive for academic journals.
It isn’t clear what Swartz intended to do with the information, but most articles mentioned his ‘Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”, which he released in July 2008, in which he argued that “We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file sharing networks.” And a similar free-access vision was expressed by another programmer, Greg Maxwell, who stated his support for Swartz as he uploaded nearly 19,000 articles from Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society on to the file-sharing website The Pirate Bay.
Beneath this ferment, the proportion of research papers freely available is slowly and steadily creeping upwards. The chart shows the proportion of papers indexed on the (largely biomedical) PubMed repository each year that are now freely accessible: in 2009, it’s above 28%. (Some of this literature is not immediately available at the time that it is published, because of journal policies that impose embargo periods on when material can become free). Those numbers are even more impressive than a study last year which found that around 20% of research papers published in 2008 were freely available on the internet.
The growth is due to various public access mandates by federal government and by funding agencies – as well as the success of open access publishers like the Public Library of Science. “What’s interesting is the relatively stable linear slope here for more than 10 years,” says David Lipman, director of the US National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) at the National Institutes of Health, which houses PubMed. “Would we expect that to continue at the same rate with around 50% of the literature published in 2021 freely available?”
For Swartz and his supporters, it seems that inexorable creep is far too slow. Sadly for him, he now reportedly faces the possibility of 35 years in prison and a $1 million fine for charges relating to wire and computer fraud – even though JSTOR says it had no interest in pursuing a prosecution once it recovered hard drives and assurances that the data wouldn’t be copied or distributed. The next action in his case will be 9 September, says the US Attorney’s office in Boston (New York Times).
Chart credit: Data from David Lipman, NCBI/PubMed