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Academics Memorialize Aaron Swartz With Open-Access Uploads

Scholars are posting their research online, free, using the hashtag #PDFTribute, to honor a man they feel was unjustly prosecuted and harassed for his avid support of open-access research.

At the time of his suicide last week, the hacker Aaron H. Swartz was facing the possibility of more than 30 years in jail for allegedly downloading nearly five million documents from the academic database JSTOR to a computer concealed in a closet at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In July 2011, the U.S. attorney in Massachusetts, Carmen M. Ortiz, filed an indictment that charged Mr. Swartz with wire fraud, computer fraud, and other computer-based crimes. The primary accusation was that he had intended to “distribut[e] a significant proportion of JSTOR’s archive through one or more file-sharing sites.”

The distribution part is key, as JSTOR had declined to press civil charges, and a criminal case would probably have rested on whether the prosecutor could prove that Mr. Swartz meant to make the files freely available, depriving JSTOR of the access fees it normally charges. Many observers felt that the indictment amounted to prosecutorial overreach.

Now some of those academics are carrying on a tiny part of Mr. Swartz’s open-access mission: making their own articles free to anyone on the Web. Some are being uploaded in Google Docs, some are hosted as PDFs on various domains, and all are being scraped with the same hashtag and collected on PDFTribute.net.

Others are choosing to “liberate” articles that are already in the public domain but not easily found outside the JSTOR database. Ars Technica reports that the “Aaron Swartz Memorial JSTOR Liberator” is a script that allows each user to download an article from the database and then upload it into a new archive that doesn’t charge for access. The creators call the script a “small act of digital civil disobedience,” one intended to keep the memory of Mr. Swartz’s work alive.

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