Academics breach copyright to tribute web activist

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Academics breach copyright to tribute web activist
Aaron Swartz, internet activist. Photo credit: Sage Ross

Researchers protest to honour Open Access campaigner Aaron Swartz.

Thousands of academics have taken to Twitter to post links to their research and thus potentially breach copyright rules in a show of support for Aaron Swartz, an online activist who took his own life on the weekend.

Swartz’s death has reignited debate over open access to journal articles and research, which Swartz believed should be shared with the world.

“It’s raised awareness of the issue and also inspired people to do more,” said Alex Holcombe, Australian Research Council Future Fellow at University of Sydney, and proponent of open access.

Supporters have been posting links to their research articles using the hashtag #pdftribute, with some risking retribution from the major publishers by breaching their copyright.

“Aaron Swartz was one of those people who wasn’t a researcher at a university, but he was an activist who used his tech skills to push the movement forward,” Holcombe said.

But despite awareness of open access becoming stronger, many researchers are still tied to a system that requires them to publish with incumbent closed journals in order to further their career.

“[As a researcher] you’re in a dilemma because you’re really encouraged to publish in the better known journals that get read and cited, but at the same time you’re getting pressure, and morally you feel you should be getting published in open access journals,” said David Glance, director of the Centre for Software Practice at the University of Western Australia.

“Universities hedge their bets by publishing in the best journals but having a digital repository,” Glance said.

Glance said the tragic death of Swartz had made him more committed to the idea of publishing his research in open access journals.

“I have a decision to make on where to publish a current article…it’s made me determined that it will be an open access journal,” Glance said.

However despite the Australian Research Council and National Health and Medical Research Council both committing to open access with new policies designed to encourage it, both Glance and Holcombe said Australia still has work to do to see true open access.

“Were a long way away from having a mechanism where you can do full open access,” Glance said.

“If we can do this from a technology perspective, that’s what will drive a move to open access.”

Glance said Google Scholar is helping articles to get visibility, irrespective of which journal they are published in.

“It’s much better at measuring citations automatically in a way that’s agnostic of where you publish them.”

Holcombe said major publishers would continue to resist such initiatives in order to protect profits, but government-funded research bodies could force change.

“With just their pen they can tell all of us researchers who want to get money from them what we need to do to get that money.”

However Holcombe said the Australian Research Council’s open access policy still included a number of loopholes that needed to be addressed.

For example, the policy states researchers must post their research in an open online repository “unless the publisher says you can’t”.

And even in cases where research articles are available via an online repository, loopholes mean those that access them are not allowed to re-use figures or selections of content in their own work, even when the researcher is happy for them to do so.

“So, for example, a child couldn’t use it in their 6th grade publication,” Holcombe said.

Holcombe would also like to see greater effort and the development of new technology solutions to deliver the numbers and other data behind research.

“Researchers should be in the habit of making their data available,” he said.

For some researchers, publishing their work on their own website has been one way to open up access. Holcombe said while this wasn’t a comprehensive solution because personal websites come and go, the major publishers had relaxed their stance on this approach.

“They used to describe it as illegal, violating their copyright terms, but now they don’t put it quite that way.”

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