Halifax profs honour Aaron Swartz with #PDFtribute

Scholars make their work freely accessible in tribute to the late 'hacktivist'

Aaron Swartz used his extraordinary computer programming skills to develop and promote free and open filesharing systems. (Photos: Wikimedia Commons)

Some Halifax professors have joined thousands of scholars, scientists, programmers and students participating in #PDFtribute, an idea and Twitter hashtag created by Swartz’s friends to memorialize his life’s work.

Swartz  was a computer programmer, activist and writer who co-founded the social news and entertainment website Reddit and co-invented the blog syndication protocol RSS. He committed suicide on Jan. 11.

Most recent reports estimate the number of links tagged with #PDFtribute at more than 40,000.

Linda Campbell, an environmental science and biology professor at Saint Mary’s University, believes Swartz’s suicide was “extremely tragic.” She feels strongly that scholarly articles should be “freely available to the public in an accessible way.”

Campbell tweeted a link about file-sharing along with the hashtag #PDFtribute on Jan. 13. She has put all of her first-authored works on her website and intends to support any colleagues or students looking to do the same.

In his 2008 manifesto, Swartz describes those with access to intellectual property as having a duty to share their “banquet of knowledge” with the world. At the time of his death, the 26-year-old activist was facing federal charges for allegedly downloading and saving more than five million academic articles from the JSTOR online database. Prosecutors believed Swartz planned to make these files available to those without access to JSTOR’s archives.

Dalhousie English professor Jason Haslam was also “shocked” to hear about Swartz’s death and the charges he was facing. Haslam shared notorious activist group Anonymous’ initial call for free #PDFtribute papers on Twitter and plans to make his own papers accessible as soon as he can. For now, Haslam is pleased that many of his scholarly works are already published in openly accessible places.

In Canada, most contracts between authors and the journals publishing their work have fair use provisions that allow the authors to retain rights for sharing their work post-publication, at least after a certain amount of time has passed.

Haslam cited the federal Social Science and Humanities Research Council as having particularly good “open access” policies.

“I personally support the idea that academic research should be made as open as possible, and I think that policies like [these] should become models for others,” he says.

The Government of Canada seems to be heading in a different direction. In 2008, with Bill C-32, the Harper Conservatives promised to introduce “tougher laws on counterfeiting and piracy,” to “[bring] Canada’s intellectual property protection in line with that of other industrialized countries.” That bill died when the minority government fell, but its terms were re-introduced two years later as part of Bill C-11, which passed into law in July 2012.

“It’s a modern legal and political battleground,” says Max Haiven, professor of historical and critical studies at NSCAD. He believes intellectual property rights are a “small but important part of a bigger battle” involving everything from music and movie file-sharing to copyrights on pharmaceutical drugs.

He calls the academic publishing system part of an “intellectual property regime” that he charges with restricting the flow of knowledge to the few members able to pay for it. He says this blocks artists and academics from fully contributing to the cultural commons.

“We’re paid a salary to produce ideas and writing,” he said. “We should be able to give those away for free.”

Anonymous’ initial #PDFtribute tweet has now been retweeted over 4,500 times.

A long-time advocate for accessible education, Haiven had already linked most of his papers to his website before Swartz’s death. Still, within one half-hour of reading Anonymous’ #PDFtribute tweet, he congregated all of his articles typically blocked by paywalls and posted them in blog and Twitter posts in Swartz’s name.

He intends to keep his writing publicly accessible after #PDFtribute stops trending.

Anonymous announced plans yesterday for an upcoming peaceful protest to further the #PDFtribute movement.



#PDFtribute’s Canadian impact:





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