When, last autumn, I was given a student card, after enrolling on a Master’s Degree course in Garden History, I was thrilled. My student card would not only entitle me to half-price beer at the union bar but, equally importantly, access to all the articles which have ever been written on my subject, through JSTOR, the digital library which is free to students and out of bounds to everyone else. And then, I was given the news, which I could scarcely believe, that the JSTOR subscription of my university, Buckingham, did not extend to articles on garden history, because they couldn’t afford the charges.
This news made me very sympathetic to the campaign by Aaron Swartz, a research fellow at Harvard, for the JSTOR journals to be available free, to anyone. In pursuit of his campaign he successfully beat the best brains at MIT by downloading nearly 5 million articles from their JSTOR files, with the intention of making them freely available. This led to him being arrested and charged with offences which carried a potential penalty of 35 years in jail. JSTOR, to their credit, were willing to agree a plea bargain which would have meant that Aaron did not serve time in jail, but MIT to their shame insisted on a jail term. Which led to his suicide. Aaron had already become famous because of his role in defeating the iniquitous Stop The Online Piracy Act last year. If he had succeeded in his campaign to free the JSTOR files he would have been a hero of students everywhere, not least me. He fully deserves the tributes which he has received from the great and the good.