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More knowledge 'stolen' for the good of science

After an Internet activist was indicted on Tuesday for bulk-downloading academic papers, an apparent ally has made 18,592 other papers from the same archive available for anyone to download. 

Open access rebel Aaron Swartz allegedly used guest networks at MIT for a mass download of 4.8 million documents from JSTOR, an academic database.

Seemingly in solidarity with Swartz, someone called Gregory Maxwell has uploaded to 33 GB of journal articles, also obtained from JSTOR, to peer-to-peer file-sharing hub Pirate Bay, GigaOm is reporting. 

Maxwell obtained the articles many years ago, "through rather boring and lawful means," he writes in his Pirate Bay statement. It seems Maxwell's sharing is potentially boring and lawful too: the articles were published before 1923 and are no longer bound by copyright. Maxwell writes: 

The documents are part of the shared heritage of all mankind, and are rightfully in the public domain, but they are not available freely. Instead the articles are available at $19 each — for one month's viewing, by one person, on one computer. It's a steal. From you.

(This may or may not be the case for Swartz's trove — nobody knows what was in it, or if it was still bound by copyright law.)

Maxwell and Swartz are among many who are discontent with the current mode of online science publishing. In most instances, neither authors nor peer reviewers are paid for their work, which is filed away by the journal or databases like JSTOR, resulting in what Maxwell calls "some of the most outrageously expensive pieces of literature you can buy." 

Back when journals were printed on paper, higher fees made some sense. But in the digital age, the argument goes, such information should be cheap, or even free. 

Maxwell first considered posting his stash of documents on a public site like Wikipedia, but such a move would have ticked off publishers. Anonymously posting them didn't seem the way to go either — Maxwell feared the legal system would incorrectly pin that action onto Swartz as well. "This didn't sit well with my conscience, and I generally believe that anything worth doing is worth attaching your name to," Maxwell writes.

And so, for the sake of science and mankind, Maxwell made his trove of academic papers public. 

The liberal dissemination of knowledge is essential to scientific inquiry. More than in any other area, the application of restrictive copyright is inappropriate for academic works: there is no sticky question of how to pay authors or reviewers, as the publishers are already not paying them. And unlike 'mere' works of entertainment, liberal access to scientific work impacts the well-being of all mankind. Our continued survival may even depend on it.

Maxwell told Ars Technica that he is a "hobbyist scientist" and regularly uses scientific papers in his line of work. 

JSTOR's response to the Swartz indictment has been muted, and the digital library has distanced itself from the issue. JSTOR published a press release clarifying that it was "the government's decision whether to prosecute [Swartz], not JSTOR's." When JSTOR became aware of Swartz's mass download, they contacted him and secured the documents. They didn't press charges once they had "received confirmation that the content was not and would not be used, copied, transferred or distributed."  

The charges leveled against the open access crusader are associated with his having hacked into the MIT network, and subsequently shutting down JSTOR access to people on the MIT campus. 

More about the open-access dispute: 

Nidhi Subbaraman writes about tech and science at msnbc.com. Find her on Twitter and Google+, and join our conversation on Facebook.