Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)

Update (1/18): Some more information has emerged.  First, it’s looking like the prosecution’s strategy was to threaten Aaron with decades of prison time, in order to force him to accept a plea bargain involving at most 6 months.  (Carmen Ortiz issued a statement that conveniently skips the first part of the strategy and focuses on the second.)  This is standard operating procedure in our wonderful American justice system, due (in part) to the lack of resources actually to bring most cases to trial.  The only thing unusual about the practice is the spotlight being shone on it, now that it was done not to some poor unknown schmuck but to a tortured prodigy and nerd hero.  Fixing the problem would require far-reaching changes to our justice system.

Second, while I still strongly feel that we should await the results of Hal Abelson’s investigation, I’ve now heard from several sources that there was some sort of high-level decision at MIT—by whom, I have no idea—not to come out in support of Aaron.  Crucially, though, I’m unaware of the faculty (or students, for that matter) ever being consulted about this decision, or even knowing that there was anything for MIT to decide.  Yesterday, feeling guilty about having done nothing to save Aaron, I found myself wishing that either he or his friends or parents had made an “end run” around the official channels, and informed MIT faculty and students directly of the situation and of MIT’s ability to help.  (Or maybe they did, and I simply wasn’t involved?)

Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I searched my inbox for “Swartz”, but all I found relevant to the case were a couple emails from a high-school student shortly after the arrest (for a project he was doing about the case), and then the flurry of emails after Aaron had already committed suicide.  By far the most interesting thing that I found was the following:

Aaron Swartz (December 12, 2007): I’m really enjoying the Democritus lecture notes. Any chance we’ll ever see lecture 12?

My response: It’s a-comin’!

As I wrote on this blog at the time of Aaron’s arrest: I would never have advised him to do what he did.  Civil disobedience can be an effective tactic, but off-campus access to research papers simply isn’t worth throwing your life away for—especially if your life holds as much spectacular promise as Aaron’s did, judging from everything I’ve read about him.  At the same time, I feel certain that the world will eventually catch up to Aaron’s passionate belief that the results of publicly-funded research should be freely available to the public.  We can honor Aaron’s memory by supporting the open science movement, and helping the world catch up with him sooner.

74 Responses to “Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)”

  1. Jamie Vicary Says:

    Surely when he decided to download the papers he didn’t realize how violent the repercussions would be. To someone with an activist’s mind, I can imagine it seeming like an imaginative, attention-grabbing stunt that would generate enough debate and interest to be worthy of the effort. So maybe it’s not fair to say he chose to “throw his life away” over the issue.

  2. Scott Says:

    Jamie: Fair point; I stand corrected.

    In retrospect, after he realized that JSTOR and MIT were trying to stop the massive downloading, he should have laid low for a while; perhaps he could have pulled the papers more slowly (over several months, let’s say). Even given what he did, though, I completely agree with various commenters who pointed out that any prison sentence he faced should have been measured in days, not in years. And maybe that’s what he expected at the time, as a worst-case outcome.

  3. vince Says:

    Carmen M. Ortiz won and Aaron Swartz lost,
    because the US is no longer the country of hackers like
    Feynman, Wozniak and so many others.

    It has become the country of attorneys, a country which
    punishes copyright infrignements with years in prison but
    lets the well-connected, like Job Corzine, walk free,
    the country of Homeland Security and no-fly-lists,
    the country of unauthorized wiretaps, a country violating
    basic principles of justice established hundreds of years ago.

    And a country with citizens who just don’t give a sh** about all this anymore …

  4. John Sidles Says:

    “Radical thinkers understood that the inherent links between freedom of the press, freedom of expression, individual liberty, and the advancement of knowledge universally were too close and direct to be qualified in any way. Freedom of expression and publication, a liberté dans les écrits,, was rightly recognized by them to be an essential precondition for advancing their social, moral, and political revolution.’ […]

    The emancipation of man via forms of government promoting the “general good” and life in a free society that accords protection to all on an equal basis, argued d’Holbach in 1770, is not an impossible dream: “if error and ignorance have forged the chains which bind peoples in oppression, if it is prejudice which perpetuates those chains, science, reason and truth will one day be able to break them” A noble and beautiful thought, no doubt, but was he right? That perhaps, is the question of our time.

    — Jonathan Israel
        A Revolution of the Mind: Radical Enlightenment
        and the Intellectual Origins of Modern Democracy

    Had Aaron Swartz demanded a jury trial — as was his inalienable right — the likelihood of conviction upon any gravely serious charge would have been small indeed … or so I hope.

    For in any group of 12 citizens, there need be only one who appreciates that the Enlightenment is not over … indeed we may hope — with Aaron — that it scarcely has begun! 🙂

  5. Chris Says:

    John Sidles, I wish you were right, but consider these facts:

    Defendants are often strictly limited in the kinds of arguments and evidence they can introduce. For instance, judges will almost never allow the defense to argue for nullification (i.e., finding the defendant not guilty due to the law being unjust), and judges will explicitly instruct the jury to decide only whether the defendant is guilty of violating the law as written. Jurors have even been subject to years of legal harassment for having nullified. See the wikipedia page on jury nullification in the US for much more on the sad history of its neutering.

    Prosecutors frequently pile up charge upon charge for the same act, leading juries to “split the difference” and find guilt on a few charges while acquitting on most of the others. Yet all the charges can carry the same basic sentencing potential.

    When deliberating, juries almost never have any idea what are typical (or mandatory minimum) sentences for the charges they’re deciding, nor do they have any input on sentencing. Read any number of post-sentencing interviews with jurors, and see their shock: “we had no idea he was facing so much time; if we had known, we would have acquitted.”

    Is it any wonder that 94% of criminal charges in state and federal cases end in plea bargains?

    Given the overzealousness with which his case was being pursued, Swartz may have seen the writing on the wall. And he even had significant means to fight back publicly, unlike most who are charged unjustly.

  6. Jack Dee Says:


    You don’t understand how this process works – the conviction is not the punishment – the punishment is the $1 MILLION in legal fees that you have to spend to defend yourself.

    That being said, Swartz was awfully naive about this whole thing if he thought that he’d get off with a slap on the wrist after what he did (stealing FIVE MILLION articles). If you want to play the civil disobedience game, you gotta be prepared for the consequences (and by consequences I mean the big legal bills more than 35 years in jail, which was never gonna happen, though maybe a couple of years were). His friends and family were willing to put up with his “eccentricities” knowing that they had a bona fide genius on their hands, but the US Attorney wouldn’t know a computer genius if it hit her on the head and what’s more she didn’t care – as far as she is concerned there is only one set of laws, not a different set for farsighted geniuses.

  7. Henning Dekant Says:

    Aaron Swartz is a hero in my book. It deeply saddens me that the world lost such a bright mind. I haven’t heard of his case before he made the fatal decision to kill himself. I can’t quite fathom why not, and this very much bothers me. After all, Open Access is something I pay attention to. I would have gladly contributed to a legal defense fund for him.

    We will never know, but maybe if there would have been more publicity, and more of a ground swell of support, he’d be still hanging on.

  8. Douglas Knight Says:

    Chris, the wikipedia page makes no mention of the persecution of nullifying jurors. The only one I can find on google is Carol Asher. Incidentally, she did not nullify a law, but just questioned a judge’s decision of law.

  9. Rahul Says:

    IMHO, academics, including those at MIT ought to have stood more strongly behind him. We all share the guilt.

  10. John Sidles Says:

    Christ #5 and others, it once happened that I personally served as a juror on a case that profoundly balanced issues of free speech with commercial interests … a case in which the defendant’s mental health was manifestly fragile, yet not legally at-issue … a defendant whose publicly-appointed counsel memorably showed (in a whiteboard concluding statement) that at least some public-defense lawyers do know even how to spell the word “innocent”.

    And yet this experience left me (and I think, everyone in the court) with *more* respect for the justice of the jury deliberation process, not less.

    Justice is the tolerable accommodation of the conflicting interests of society, and I don’t believe there is any royal road to attain such accommodations concretely.

    — Judge Learned Hand

    Any citizen caught up in Aaron Swartz’s unhappy situation, might do worse than entrust judgement to a jury of peers, that is instructed by an experienced judge, and thoroughly informed of the facts of the case.

    Whenever it happens to a person, that the “suicide” option appears to be better than the “jury” option … then surely it’s time to seek medical relief as a supplement than legal relief (recognizing that both options can be sadly imperfect).

    These issues are not simple, and it is a mistake to present that they can be made simple. And yet surely we can do better (and will do better) than in Aaron Schwartz’s sad case.

  11. John Sidles Says:

    Comment #10 have been:

    … a defendant whose publicly-appointed counsel memorably showed (in a whiteboard concluding statement) that at least some public-defense lawyers do know even how to spell the word  inocent  inoccent  innoccent  innoscent”.

    No Simpsons episode could have surpassed this defense summation … and yet such was the gravity of the court, than no-one dared even to smile, lest the wrath of the judge descent upon them.

  12. Scott Says:

    Rahul #9: I agree—and to that end, it would’ve helped if we’d known more. The first I heard about Aaron Swartz after the news of his arrest, was the news of his suicide.

  13. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I totally agree with the sentiment that published science should be freely available. And that it’s a great way to honor the memory of Aaron Swartz. However, the backlash against MIT is unfair. From what I read in HuffPo: At a time when Swartz had no affiliation with MIT, he broke into an IT closet and planted a laptop there. This put MIT in a quandary. It is and should be illegal, because it is potentially disruptive to the institution in all kinds of ways to break into IT closets. But, if MIT complains to the police, then the prosecution is not really under their control.

    Then, the suicide. Almost any well-publicized suicide can work as a powerful accusation against society. But by his own account, Swartz had struggled with serious depression. By the accounts of his friends and relatives, his life was badly disordered in various ways. Yes, he was in a scary legal position, partly because he deliberately tempted fate. But most people in such a legal position do not commit suicide, they try to patch things up one way or another.

  14. Scott Says:

    Greg: I agree that MIT acted reasonably by contacting the police. But from my reading, it looks like the main thing MIT could have done but didn’t was to issue a public statement (after the basic facts had become clear) saying that it was no longer interested in pursuing charges against Swartz. That’s what JSTOR did, and maybe it would’ve helped to undermine Carmen Ortiz—who seems like clearly the main aggressor here—if MIT had followed suit.

    But I completely agree with President Reif that an investigation is called for—and not just for pro forma reasons! (Indeed, Reif’s rapid, reality-oriented response—including putting Hal Abelson in charge of the investigation—reminded me of why I was delighted when Reif was chosen as President.) Hopefully more facts will come out, and then we’ll be able to say with confidence whether and how MIT should change its policies going forward.

  15. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    I too would call an investigation if I were Reif, and while I wouldn’t say pro forma reasons, I might privately say political reasons. On the one hand, I have no clear sense that MIT did anything all that wrong. On the other hand, people are inevitably, understandably very upset. So you have an investigation to get people to calm down.

    Besides, although I harbor great contempt for Rambo prosecutors, even people who are up against Rambo prosecutors don’t usually commit suicide. There is also this peculiar fact: When Swartz liberated a previous stash of documents, he didn’t get in any trouble and had a good chance of not getting in any trouble, but he already then had nightmares of the tyranny breaking down his door and carting him away. It’s hard to dispel the sense that besides simple depression, he also overdosed on drama. Anything that could have been done to prevent his suicide should have been done; anything reasonable that could have been done to ease his legal troubles should have been done. But he kept raising the ante.

  16. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Which in the end is an argument to target journal copyright entanglements as the enemy, and not MIT.

  17. John Sidles Says:

    Greg Kuperberg says: “I too would call an investigation if I were Reif [because] you have an investigation to get people to calm down.”

    Any internal MIT investigation that so structured as to permit even an infinitesimal suspicion that it will reach a predetermined conclusion that is designed “to get people to calm down” (to use Greg Kuperberg’s injudicious phrase) will of course yield precisely the opposite result.

    As well it should!

  18. Scott Says:

    Greg #15: Maybe the following is something positive we can draw from this affair.

    To any depressed nerdy person out there who might be contemplating suicide: there’s an excellent chance Aaron Swartz’s situation was objectively worse than yours (he was, after all, facing years in prison). Yet look at how many people were ready to help him—legally, financially, and so forth—had he reached out to them. Look at how many influential friends and supporters he had. It seems obvious, to an outsider, that his decision was deeply irrational, that there were vastly better ways to respond—regardless of whether we’re talking about his self-interest, or his ability to contribute to the causes he cared about. Now take what’s obvious in his case and apply it to your own.

  19. Aaron Swartz | Q Says:

    […] lliure a la ciència i al coneixement. S’enfrontava ara a una pena de 35 anys de presó, i a uns costos del judici d’un milió de dòlars. Totalment desproporcionat, oi? Ara JSTOR diu […]

  20. Alex Says:

    UK residents can support open access by responding to this parliamentary consultation (1 week notice, the b*stards) http://blogs.computerworlduk.com/open-enterprise/2013/01/fighting-for-open-access/index.htm

  21. Nex Says:

    Scott: It seems obvious, to an outsider, that his decision was deeply irrational…

    The assertion that suicide must be irrational is itself completely irrational.

    It always amazes me how people think they know better then the person in question whether their life was worth living. You are all assuming that everyone experiences life in the same way you do which is manifestly false.

    It is also interesting how people in the same breath profess respect for the deceased and make him into an irrational fool who made a terrible mistake. I realize it’s a defense mechanism but still, to me it comes of as extremely arrogant and disrespectful.

    I for one respect every person’s choice to end their own life, and in lack of evidence to the contrary I assume it was their own well thought out and rational decision.

  22. Wouter van Doorn Says:

    “It seems obvious, to an outsider, that his decision was deeply irrational, that there were vastly better ways to respond—regardless of whether we’re talking about his self-interest, or his ability to contribute to the causes he cared about.”

    Scott, this is not at all obvious to me. It seems perfectly plausible to me that he had good reasons to believe he would stay unhappy for the foreseeable future. Why are you so sure there weren’t any?

  23. Scott Says:

    Nex #21 and Wouter #22: Well, we know that he was suffering from clinical depression (he blogged about it often). And we also know that countless people, while in the depths of depression, do drastic things (like attempting suicide) that they later regard as highly irrational after they recover from the depression. Finally, we know that it’s fairly uncommon for people not in the depths of either a painful physical illness, or a depression or other mental illness, to attempt suicide—the exceptions (the kamikazes, the Jews of Masada, etc.) fascinate us precisely because they’re exceptional. (You might say that facing a prospect of decades in prison is also “exceptional,” but my point was precisely that given how many high-placed supporters he had, that outcome was not at all a given.)

    So, to me, there’s an overwhelming presumption that any suicide carried out in the depths of depression is “irrational”—in the sense that, had the attempt failed and had the clinical depression been cured, the person would later look back and be glad the attempt failed.

  24. An Says:

    There is a White House petition to remove Carmen Ortiz from office for overreach in the case of Aaron Swartz.

  25. Nex Says:

    If you’ve been suffering from clinical depression for years without any treatment working and the life continues to be unbearable then suicide is a very rational choice.

    To keep suffering on the off-chance that things might someday get better is irrational.

  26. Rahul Says:

    I think academics need to react stronger: Why aren’t there more boycotts of paid journals? Why not more resignations from editorial boards and refusals to referee for paid journals?

    Those would be fitting tributes I think; if Aaron had to pay with his life that’s the least we could do.

  27. Vadim Says:


    I would never presume to decide something as personal as whether to continue living for someone else (obviously!), but how can anyone know that things won’t get better? Unless someone has an imminently-terminal disease, future happiness is never out of the question. I know I’ve had low points in my life where it seemed at the time that I’d never be happy again (thankfully it was never bad enough that I’d even have entertained suicide), but in retrospect, it’s obvious that it was just a temporary feeling. I’m not saying this to criticize Aaron’s decision, but like Scott, I hope that anyone reading this blog who is feeling really down about their situation remembers that things are rarely as bad as they seem, and chances are they won’t seem this bad forever. Plus, we’re all going to go someday, so there will be plenty of time to be dead in the future.

  28. Scott Says:

    Rahul #26:

      Why aren’t there more boycotts of paid journals? Why not more resignations from editorial boards and refusals to referee for paid journals?

    I second, third, and fourth that question! I’ve been refusing to submit to, review for, or edit high-priced commercial journals since 2004, when I first learned about this issue. Many of my colleagues are doing the same, but we need the majority to join us.

    Look, as I’ve said many times, this is the one idealistic protest movement that actually gets you out of doing unpleasant work! The next time an editor of an Elsevier journal asks you to referee a paper for them, just tell them you’ll be “slackin’ off for Swartz.”

  29. Joe Bob Says:

    Why did no one — GNU, FSF, MIT, Apache, ACLU — no one, come out to help him? WTF man.

    MIT is all talk these days.


  30. Scott Says:

    An #24: Thanks for the link! I signed that petition.

  31. Scott Says:

    Joe Bob #29: Well, even his close friends and family seem to have been unaware of the depth of his plight. And even Richard Stallman (who’s now on the warpath, as you can imagine) wasn’t beating the drum about this issue until after the suicide. So many things seem “obvious” in retrospect.

  32. Rahul Says:

    Scott #28:

    On his memorial site there isn’t any talk of these issues: How to change the system. Boycotts, resignations from journals etc. We need a central way to encourage this.

    I commend Scott’s decision to refuse to edit / review / submit to commercial journals. I think others would follow given a nudge. We need a list where academics signal their boycotts to encourage others to do so. It’s a lot about signalling and a critical mass.

    Is the lack of such stuff on the memorial website a sanctity of an obituary issue? I didn’t know Aaron but knowing what I have read about him I don’t think he’d mind it at all. How about getting Carmen M. Ortiz a censure?

    Sometimes we do need to confront issues head on. Aaron is dead. No point, being nicety nice now; let’s get something concrete done that’d be a lasting memorial.

  33. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    “Why did no one come out to help him?” The truth is that a lot of people *did* try to help him. He responded by brushing away their help and exploiting their trust. All in the name of the great data liberation.

  34. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    There is also a great irony in the call to boycott expensive publishers (which I fully support). Namely, JSTOR is a compromise solution intended to help *inexpensive* independent journals. Such as the Annals of Mathematics, which as everyone informed knows, is much cheaper per page than the junk journals published by Elsevier. I hope that people understand what happens to math journals that make their papers free on the Internet: Libraries cancel their subscriptions. The Annals used to put its papers on the arXiv, a policy that I lobbied for. For a few years, the libraries didn’t notice. Then they were forced to stop because of loss of revenue. A budget independent journal was on the road to eventual bankruptcy. The libraries were completely up-front about it: “We don’t care that it’s cheaper than other journals. We don’t care that it’s the most prestigious math journal. If it’s free, we can’t afford to pay for it. Put it behind a paywall and you will force us to come back.”

  35. John Sidles Says:

    Scott says  “So many things seem “obvious” in retrospect.”

    Agreed 100% Two such obvious points in the present case are:

    Increasingly Obvious Point #1 (medical)  Being aware of a person’s personal plight is a necessary but often insufficient condition for helping that person … depression-linked suicide is a tragic outcome — arising from overlapping causes that are known to include childhood abuse, brain trauma, PTSD, adult-onset schizophrenia, substance abuse, genetic predilection, and still-mysterious idiopathic causes — for which our remedies are lamentably imperfect.

    Increasingly Obvious Point #2 (societal)  More-and-more STEM professionals in general (and QC/QIT researchers in particular) appreciate that open access to the STEM literature is a 21st century moral issue of stature comparable to the causes to which Rosa Parks and Nelson Mandela were personally committed.

    Are these two points linked? That obvious question points to an obvious answer:

    Increasingly Obvious Point #3 (universality)  A strong argument (among the strongest?) for embracing Obvious Point 2 is that we thereby speed the day that we can effectively address Obvious Point 1.


    Kudos to the US/NIH for pioneering recognition that Points #1 and #2 are morally entangled.

  36. Rahul Says:

    Greg #33:

    “exploiting their trust.”

    Strong words. Pray explain?

  37. Scott Says:

    Rahul #32: Here’s the Cost of Knowledge petition, where 13,000 researchers have pledged not to work with Elsevier unless they radically change how they operate. (The focus on Elsevier is not because they’re the sole offender, just because they’re the worst.)

  38. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Rahul – Breaking into an IT closet and following that with Mac address spoofing and distributed IP methods, *does* fall under the category of exploiting other people’s trust.

    But also, when I read about what Swartz did at MIT, I have to say that it sounded like a lot of fun. At least, I would have enjoyed it a lot at a younger age, if I could manage to suppress common sense for long enough. Perhaps as an antidote to his self-reported depression, he jumped into deep geek ecstacy.

  39. John Sidles Says:

    Greg Kuperberg says (#33): 

    “Why did no one come out to help him [Aaron Swartz]?” The truth is that a lot of people *did* try to help him. He responded by brushing away their help and exploiting their trust. All in the name of the great data liberation.

    The scientific literature in general, and the literatures of medicine and systems engineering in particular, provide extensive discussion of the notion of “blame”, in the form of thousands of peer-reviewed articles that include an abundance of case histories in medicine, engineering, and science, that are analyzed in-depth and in-context. The essential lessons-learned from this vast literature are concisely summarized in common-sense analyses of “blame” by experienced practitioners. Because this literature presents a rare example of near-perfect unanimity of STEM opinion, and because it is directly relevant to lessons we all are seeking to learn from the Aaron Swartz episode, these common-sense summary articles are especially commended to Shtetl Optimized readers.

  40. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Excuse me, John S., but MIT was never consulted about becoming Aaron Swartz’s caretaker. In fact at first, by Swartz’s own efforts at concealment, they didn’t even know who was tampering with their computer network, nor why. Then, when Swartz died, his family wasted no time in accusing MIT of risking his life. Yes, there should be an investigation at MIT, but probably not to cleanse MIT of sins. Rather, I conjecture that the investigation will bolster the position that Swartz’s parents aren’t being reasonable. That position isn’t very popular right now; nonetheless it’s fairly credible.

    But sure, psychiatrists shouldn’t blame their patients. I have no quarrel with that.

  41. Artificial Intelligence Blog · “Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)” Says:

    […] “Aaron Swartz (1986-2013)” […]

  42. John Sidles Says:

    Greg Kuperberg, I think we both agree that the logical structure of the arguments of comment #40 is well-suited for public discussion as an exemplary case study of personal and institutional responsibility. As the literature emphasizes, justified sustainment of trust is a difficult-yet-paramount long-term objective for individuals and institutions alike … this crucial consideration is absent from comment #40 (as I read it anyway).

  43. Joe Bob Says:

    Oh Kuperberg 33, you frame the issue so narrowly. Wtf man.
    The history of good is ridden with far broader transgressions. I don’t think Swartz deserved this. -jb

  44. Aram Says:

    John, I’m not sure why you think a jury trial would have gone well for him. I suspect that we all rely on prosecutorial discretion more than we should be comfortable with.

    Here is one quote along these lines

    “There is no one in the United States over the age of 18 who cannot be indicted for some federal crime,” said John Baker, a retired Louisiana State University law professor who has also tried counting the number of new federal crimes created in recent years. “That is not an exaggeration.”

    which I found via

    Consider also the situation with torture. The US recently went through a scandal in which thousands of people were tortured, during which hundreds “accidentally” died. Torture is unambiguous illegal and saying that you were ordered to do it is not a defense. And yet the sole conviction to date has been not for a torturer, but for someone who was a whistleblower about torture. I’m sure you were a great juror yourself, but somehow the system overall appears to produce flawed outcomes when powerful groups want there to be convictions.

  45. Aram Says:

    Kuperberg #33: Did Swartz exploit the trust of people who tried to help him? He may have exploited MIT’s open network, but MIT isn’t a person who tried to help him.

    However, as for brushing off requests for help, here is what Larry Lessig wrote, speaking as a friend of Swartz:
    “…his wealth bled dry, yet unable to appeal openly to us for the financial help he needed to fund his defense, at least without risking the ire of a district court judge”

    for context, see

  46. Rahul Says:

    One thing that must change is the taste for long sentencing for such crimes. Does this pass the common sense test?

    5 years in jail. What did he do? Fooled around in a cabinet with a computer? Who was hurt? We don’t know.

  47. Joe Bob Says:

    We lost someone who was dedicated to doing good. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves for letting him slip through the cracks. Everybody on their own seems to be the mantra, despite the MITs and Harvards of the world. Change the world? Bollocks.


  48. Luke Says:

    In almost every place i read that he was a curios person, really passionate about his work and with lots of future projects. I find it difficult to reconcile the person described with that words with the one that committed suicide.

  49. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Aram – Okay, I agree that my reasoning here was a bit sloppy. Swartz certainly did exploit MIT’s trust, and not just because they had an open network. It began with exploiting their open network, and over the course of months escalated to this:


    Wandering into a little-visited IP closet in the library basement because you hid a laptop there for months, combined with Mac address spoofing and spread-IP network access, renders open campus wifi irrelevant and goes vastly further.

    Swartz also exploited JSTOR, which is a hosting service for budget independent journals. Now, I agree that budget is not as good as free — why would I put so much work into the math arXiv if I didn’t agree. But Swartz choosing JSTOR instead of Elsevier as his target was both expedient and perverse. Trying to frame MIT for his revolutionary actions was also expedient and perverse.

    To those who ask whether there were any victims, if JSTOR cuts off access to MIT because of spread-IP violation of terms of use, then yes, that has victims. Again, I’m all for free alternatives, but not this way.

  50. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Anyway, for various reasons, rallying against Carmen Ortiz and MIT won’t accomplish anything. From the beginning, Scott saw the wiser path: We should honor Aaron Swartz’s memory by working towards open access to the scientific literature. The traditional subscription model for scientific journals doesn’t make sense, and we should replace it with something better.

  51. Rahul Says:

    Greg #34 and #50:

    How much funding would be needed to sustain a fully free and online-only “Annals of Mathematics” every year. What are the main expenses? Reviewing is gratis, right?

  52. Rahul Says:

    Greg #50:

    >>> Anyway, for various reasons, rallying against Carmen Ortiz and MIT won’t accomplish anything. <<<

    About MIT I agree perhaps. But I see lots of reasons to rally against Ortiz. Prosecutoral overreach isn't exactly a welcome trend and especially when it seems to have been a major contributing factor in a suicide, repercussions ought to be there.

  53. John Sidles Says:

    Greg Kuperberg says: “Rallying against Carmen Ortiz and MIT won’t accomplish anything.”


    And conversely, rallying for reconsideration of federal prosecutorial actions and MIT’s institutional decision-making may accomplish a great deal. Because those federal prosecutorial actions and that university decision-making process both were (in Greg Kuperberg’s phrase) “a bit sloppy” (to say the very least).

    Conclusion  We may reasonably hope for, and all benefit from, after-action evaluations of the Swartz case that are more thoughtful, nuanced, and forward-looking than an institutionally minimalist mistakes were made.

  54. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Rahul – Your question about the Annals is a good one. They spend roughly $100 per page on a full-time secretary, and on typesetting and subscriptions. The secretary handles basically all of the journal’s bureaucracy.

    $100 per page is a very rough estimate because I don’t remember the precise figure, and also because there is no precise figure due to fluctuations in the number of pages. But as a rough rule of thumb, $100 per page is a respectable operating cost for a journal. If you run a really cheap operation — that also may tacitly rely a lot on professional service time — then you might get away with say $40 per page. There are non-profit journals that cost well more than $100 per page. Up to you to decide where this money should come from, and how many journals it could pay for.

  55. Rahul Says:

    Greg #54:


    OTOH, if you did go “fully free and online-only” a lot of this work is reduced or eliminated right? No more taking care of subscription etc.

    Typesetting also gets reduced to proofreading / some template enforcement?

    That was the model I was thinking of. What’s the flaw?

  56. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Rahul – It is true that a lot of things are simpler if you ditch typesetting and subscriptions. However, handholding among the authors, referees, and the editorial board still takes a significant amount of work. In fact, I think that that too can be greatly reduced in principle, but that is unproven.

  57. Rahul Says:

    Greg #56:

    Thanks for the insider insights.

  58. Rahul Says:

    I see some authors post pdf’s of their papers on personal websites. Others don’t.

    What’s the legal situation here, anyone know? If one publishes in Annals or an Elsiever journal can one post his own paper on his website or not?

  59. asdf Says:

    I haven’t brought myself to read Carmen Ortiz’s spin, but from your description, it sounds like Ortiz wanted to sentence Swartz to 0.5 years in prison for the JSTOR download if he pled guilty, or alternatively 0.5 years for the download plus an additional (N-0.5) years for exercising his right against self-incrimination by going to trial, where N is a double-digit number. That seems pretty broken to me. What kind of “right” is that?

    Greg: JSTOR is not a “hosting service for budget independent journals”.

  60. John Sidles Says:

    In regard to open-access, Tim Gowers has just posted Why I’ve also joined the good guys. His post is recommended for its solid common-sense. 🙂

  61. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    @Rahul #58:

    The strict legal positions vary quite a bit. However, most journals these days do legally allow you to distribute a limited number of copies (not unlimited) of your own articles (not of others) to other individuals (not institutions) for their academic reference purposes (not commercial).

    To emphasize: What the journals strongly prohibit is the author’s making profits by selling copies (or the copyrights) of the articles. (Most journals ask you to transfer the copyrights over to them, but that is more in the nature of making their own position legally foolproof vis-a-vis other parties than wanting to constrain you or to take a legal advantage out of you.)

    In practice, what a fine-print like “a limited number of copies” etc. means is that they ignore it if the authors simply put PDFs in an open manner on their Web site—precisely because the PDFs are put up openly, it means, the author is not making any profit out of it!

    I know of not a single journal going after an author, legally exercising the fine-print, for distributing eprints. BTW, even in the rarest of the rare cases wherein they might simply issue a polite letter to stop distributing copies, they still don’t seriously threaten authors with the legal options. So, it’s never an obstacle to authors distributing their papers in the interest of diffusion of knowledge (or even plain of making a name for themselves!)

    Even in the current case, notice, JSTOR had dropped the case. Despite some 4.8 million articles having been downloaded. (People begin whispering if a single author publishes 200+ papers.)

    The arguments against Elsevier etc. which you see around, are rather about the high journal prices, and the model of business and of the division of labor that ends up using the free services of the researchers (both the authors and the reviewing peers), rather than about the individual authors wanting to distribute their papers for free to the academic community.

    It’s worth noting that one of the most reputed and oldest continuously published journals, viz. Nature, has already adopted the policy which accepts simultaneous submissions to arXiv. (I don’t know if they also don’t mind viXra, but it is likely. The publishing world does operate that way.)

    One final point, if you would allow me: Some of the very best research work has been published outside of the journals system.

    This opus includes: the first paper on spectral analysis by Fourier, the first mathematical treatment of diffraction/interference of waves by Fresnel, the first paper presenting a fairly full development of the potential theory by George Green (his treatment rivalled Gauss’!), and the first well-compiled and formal statement of the first law of thermodynamics by Helmholtz.

    In all these cases, the works were rejected in the peer-review process. In all these cases, the authors published them privately.

    To be fair, in contrast, there also have been works that first appeared (and are acknowledged as having appeared) outside the journal system for reasons other than the editorial rejection in peer-review. Such works include most current advances in CS (where early conference publications are a norm) and, notably, the first paper on quantum mechanics by Planck (in October 1900).

    Conclusions? (1) Publishing in journals, esp. in reputed journals, is a prudent policy but not the be-all and end-all of all research. (2) Ranting isn’t always against publishers. Respectable evidence also exists to rant against any peer-review system. (3) The world will beat a path to your door—if you have something of value to say.

    PS: And, I did exercise restraint in not citing Ayn Rand’s example, in the main body of this write-up, didn’t I?
    PPS: Sorry for a long reply again, and any plodding through that it requires.

  62. Rahul Says:

    Ajit #61:

    >>>Some of the very best research work has been published outside of the journals system.<<<

    Do you have any examples from the last, say, 20 (or even 50) years? I'd be curious to hear.

  63. John Sidles Says:

    Slashdot has just opened a new topic JSTOR an Entitlement For US DoJ’s Ortiz & Holder whose reasoning very nicely complements Tim Gowers’ reasoning (per the link in #60).

    There are marked echoes in this case of the radically enlightened politics of the mathematicians and scientists of Priestly’s and Franklin’s and Galois’ generation, or in modern times Pauling, Koblitz, and Grothendieck.

    It is a crucial question — regarding which reasonable opinions may differ! — whether the present generation of STEM professionals suffers from a deficit of enlightened radicals, or a surplus of them.

    My own opinion is that we would all benefit from more Swartz’s (and Stallmans, etc), and so when we lose one, that’s a tragedy. Whereas in contrast, there has been for the past several decades no evident shortfall of business-as-usual STEM moderates.

  64. asdf Says:

    Rahul #62, Perelman’s proof of the Poincare conjecture?

    See also: http://www.math.rutgers.edu/~zeilberg/Opinion77.html

    I’m not sure what to make of the self-involved http://www.math.rutgers.edu/~zeilberg/Opinion121.html

  65. John Sidles Says:

    Rahul #62 asks:

    Ajit #61 asserts: “Some of the very best research work has been published outside of the journals system.”

    “Do you have any examples from the last, say, 20 (or even 50) years? I’d be curious to hear.”

    In mathematics, Perelman and Grothendieck’s later works were published outside the journals system (for complex reasons that overlap with Aaron Swartz’ objectives). In physics, Roger Penrose’ and David Deutsch’ books contain numerous theoretical ideas that might reasonably have been published as peer-reviewed articles. In engineering, a substantial body of mathematical/physical monographs by Paul Dirac, John von Neumann, Richard Feynman, and Lars Onsager, that relate broadly to multi-scale transport phenomena, remain classified even today. And finally, in simulation science, financial engineering, and cryptography, breakthrough algorithms commonly are closely-held, and not infrequently have been openly published only after considerable time has passed.

    Despite the above exceptional cases, it is broadly true that STEM results that are well-posed, important, and simple enough to be expressed in a few dozen pages — and these criteria encompass almost *all* significant STEM results — are best presented in seminar for peer commentary, then posted as a preprint to the arxiv server for global dissemination, and then submitted to an open-access journal for formal peer review. In other words, the STEM community’s business-as-usual procedures work very well, in the vast majority of cases, for everyone in the STEM community … provided that the Swartz-style/Gowers-style “open-access” stricture is respected.

  66. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Lest anyone confuse magnanimity with weakness, the reason that JSTOR dropped the case is that Swartz agreed not to post his mega-download onto the Internet.

    Of course, I like the arXiv a lot better than I like JSTOR, because the arXiv is 100% freely available. But JSTOR is not actually evil. It’s non-profit and it acts non-profit. It could be the best that you can do in the screwed up status quo in which libraries cancel subscriptions when they find out that a journal is free.

  67. Richard Says:

    Greg #66: “Lest anyone confuse magnanimity with weakness, the reason that JSTOR dropped the case is that Swartz agreed not to post his mega-download onto the Internet.” Can you cite a reference for this?

  68. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    “We have had inquiries about JSTOR’s view of this sad event given the charges against Aaron and the trial scheduled for April. The case is one that we ourselves had regretted being drawn into from the outset, since JSTOR’s mission is to foster widespread access to the world’s body of scholarly knowledge. At the same time, as one of the largest archives of scholarly literature in the world, we must be careful stewards of the information entrusted to us by the owners and creators of that content. To that end, Aaron returned the data he had in his possession and JSTOR settled any civil claims we might have had against him in June 2011.


  69. Aram Says:

    Greg, I agree that he exploited MIT’s open network. Nevertheless, I think JSTOR’s reaction to cut off access to 18.* was excessive.

    I agree that as scientists, we can be most useful by promoting open access. However, prosecutorial over-charging (both in general, and specifically for computer crimes) is a big problem as well, and for that reason it is worthwhile to try to get Carmen Ortiz fired and/or the relevant laws changed. Here is an expert on computer hacking laws who is unsympathetic to Swartz, but still opposed to the relevant laws.

  70. Rahul Says:

    Greg #66:

    >>>It could be the best that you can do in the screwed up status quo in which libraries cancel subscriptions when they find out that a journal is free.<<<

    Sorry, but I don't see how this is "screwed up". Isn't that an oxymoron: if something is free isn't it almost by definition not requiring a subscription?

    e.g. How would a library justify it to an auditor, say, as to why they spent money on something that was free, anyways?

    There's a difference between a donation and a subscription.

  71. Rahul Says:

    “Volokh Conspiracy” has a detailed two-part blog post on the legal angles of the Aaron Swatz tragedy. An interesting read:



  72. Ajit R. Jadhav Says:

    @Rahul #62:

    There are quite a few examples from the area of quantum foundations.

    Off-hand, about a decade ago, there used to be an enthusiastic British lady who would publish interesting ideas on quantum foundations—for a local theory of QM—but only as HTML 1.0 pages on the Internet. Mostly, conceptual things. But she could never get her papers published in journals during her lifetime. I vaguely recall her name as Carolyn or something like that. Someone was maintaining her pages on the ‘net at least for some time after her death, though I couldn’t locate them today.

    If it rings a bell to anyone reading this comment, please drop me a line about her name or URL. Here are a few more details on her: She had BA in physics/maths from Cambridge; was alive a decade ago; was in her mid/late 50s when she died (within the past 5 years or so); and would live in a trailer-park in England, surviving on government handouts, but cheerfully maintaining her Web pages on her ideas about QM. She had tried sounding them out with Penrose at a conference, but with only a polite nothing in return (about which she was not bitter).

    I remember thinking that at least some of her ideas—her insistence on a local theory of QM—were worthy of a journal publication in some or the other journal. After all, what was there in Pearson’s “paper” coining the phrase “random walk,” to get published in Nature? It now has a citation count, per Google, of 339. Go ahead, check out its contents, here: http://www.nature.com/physics/looking-back/pearson/index.html.

    A stronger example: Talking of myself, my proposal on successful simulation of the Afshar experiment (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Afshar_experiment), using my (local) approach, was turned down even by a conference; you can see the proposed abstract on my personal Web site, here: http://JadhavResearch.com/research/rejected-papers/

    The first-time rejection is a pretty broad phenomenon; see: http://www.nature.com/news/rejection-improves-eventual-impact-of-manuscripts-1.11583.

    The above link raises another closely related issue: of a timely publication.

    In today’s world (of fast paced development + having more number of scientists simultaneously alive than at any time in history), a delay of even just 2 years can be significant in the short or medium range for one’s career—think of its impact on getting your tenure. I have found even topmost researchers (e.g. those with the best innovator or young-scientist awards etc., in the USA) working in a hot field like nano-tech simulations etc., complaining at respectable fora (like iMechanica) about the sometimes undue delay even they have faced in publication in journals. In one case of a simulation result, it was something like 1.5 years already, and still counting. That’s almost the period of Moore’s law; hence, it almost fully kills any academic “credit” and support for further grant applications the author might have otherwise got. Seems like it’s a convenient way to keep the people you don’t like (say, out of their nationality or skin color) out of your exclusive top-5 (or whatever such) club!

    So, sure, the world will beat a path to your door if you have something of value to say, but the greater the government control of economy (including the control of research), the greater seems to be the waiting period and the cost for the eventual success to be paid by the author—whether you publish in journals, or not. Talking of the more recent times, as against in the 19th century, this one also seems to be a pertinent issue.


  73. Greg Kuperberg Says:

    Aram – JSTOR had no choice but to block MIT’s access. Not only did they have to worry about possible revenue collapse, but also Swartz downloaded so much that at times it created a denial-of-service brownout.

    I totally agree that criminal sentencing laws in the United States are completely out of control and need to be changed. And I totally disagree that Carmen Ortiz should be singled out or that there is any more specific problem with computer crimes. On the contrary, I think that there is less such trouble with computer crimes than with many other types of crimes. It comes across as spoiled to concentrate on this one case.

    Rahul – I do not blame libraries for their need to save money. They have ways to justify the matter to auditors, but never mind that. The fact is that it creates a widespread, perverse incentive to keep the current expensive, inefficient journal system. In that sense, yes it’s screwed up, for reasons that go beyond greed of the evil corporation.

    BTW link to a really good analysis by Orin Kerr at the Volokh conspiracy and you get a moral upvote from me for that.

  74. Raoul Ohio Says:

    Update from Wired:


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