L. Rafael Reif, president of MIT, announced last week that he would release documents relating to Aaron Swartz, the gifted computer programmer who killed himself earlier this year. The 26-year-old was being prosecuted for downloading academic papers that MIT had licensed from the publishing company JSTOR when he killed himself.
Swartz's punishment could have led to 35 years in prison and $1 million in fines. Some have argued that prosecutorial threats along with his depression led to his eventual suicide. The details of his death in January were widely discussed, but with the new release of these MIT documents, it is likely that the events preceding his death will once more be in the news.
What should not be missed in this tragic story is the importance of the dissemination of academic knowledge that Swartz clearly understood.
Academics such as scientists communicate their results of research and study by publishing articles in peer-reviewed journals. They do not make money off their publications. In this respect, they differ from creative artists such as musicians or writers, who may earn royalties or fees.
The community of scientists reviews each other's papers, free of charge. What is gained here is prestige: prestige in being published, or prestige in serving as a reviewer. While prestige doesn't directly translate into monetary gain, it is an important factor in gaining tenure, being promoted, and competing for grants from granting agencies.