The Robin Hood of Science: The Missing Chapter

The tale of a young man driven to his death for fighting for what is right, and the young woman picking up where he left off.

Content Warning: Contains references to violence, injustice, suicide and material you may find upsetting, you might not want to read this on the bus.


Last week I wrote what has quickly become the most read piece of writing I have ever written. It told the tale of how one researcher — Alexandra Elbakyan — has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free online to anyone, anywhere in the world. This is part two, but it’s OK; this is a story that, just like Star Wars, you can read backward.

The moment I started working on this story last October I knew it was a huge story. I knew it deserved to be read not just by the hundreds of thousands of people who are now reading and sharing it. I knew it deserved to be in newspapers around the world.

So I did what any science journalist would do. I pitched it to The New York Times; I pitched it to The Guardian; I pitched it to all the big guns. The response? Crickets. Bizarrely, until the day that I broke the story last week not one publication had ever covered the story of Sci-Hub. Since last week, dozens have.

The only publication that gave any indication of interest happened to be the largest publisher in tech news. For a time things sounded very promising; but discussions eventually broke down when I made it clear that it was impossible for me to convince Alexandra to travel to Europe for a photoshoot. She feared arrest, quite understandably. Discussions reached a deadlock as I was placed under immense pressure to cut the story down, ultimately to less than 250 words, barely a couple of paragraphs.

Apparently the story was not worth being printed on paper without glossy photos of Alexandra herself posing for the camera, as if they were remotely relevant to the story. A story of this complexity simply couldn’t be covered in any meaningful way in 250 words, I argued. That has since proven to be true as vast numbers of people who read the story thought researchers or universities received a portion of the fees paid by the public to read the journals, which contain academic research funded by taxpayers.

This is simply not true. Most of the billions of dollars that are paid every year for access to academic publications are creamed off, directly into the pockets of publishing fat cats and their shareholders. Not a penny of this is paid to a scientist or academic institution. In fact if anything, scientists must pay for their work to be published. Editing, reviewing, production, every stage of the process is carried out by researchers who act as volunteers, independently of journals for the good of science. Every single stage of work paid for by the public purse is farmed out, except the profits, which are sucked up by billion-dollar-per-year corporations. 

This is routine; it’s just the way things work today, a sad hangover from a time when print was a finite resource, even though now it is obsolete in the academic world, replaced by digital documents effortlessly transmitted down the telephone line. It is a hangover that benefits and enriches a handful of for-profit corporations that create nothing, at the expense of all of humanity’s access to the wealth of scientific knowledge.

The costs are real. Just yesterday I met a social worker who — now that she’s qualified, now that she’s a “professional” — can no longer access the social work journals she needs to do her job because she is no longer at a university, so now she no longer has an access code. The same is true for doctors, psychologists, neurologists, engineers, botanists, geneticists, chemists, and philosophers around the developing world.

Ultimately, the first publisher I approached with the story, who after a brief discussion I sent the complete 2,000-word report, published a cut down and cobbled together version of the story behind my back. I panicked and decided as a last-ditch resort to publish my working copy on my blog.

I wanted an accurate and complete version of events not just to be the story of record, but also to be the breaking story, the story that people actually read. Thankfully it was. The story was accurate, but to my shame the story was incomplete. Since last week I have received countless messages asking me why one name was missing from the report. That name was Aaron Swartz. What follows is the missing chapter.

At the very same time that Alexandra was building Sci-Hub, on the other side of the world, a young man named Aaron Swartz was fighting the same fight, in a very different way. Unlike Alexandra who has explained her reasoning for breaking the law to the judge acting in her case in the frankest possible terms, Aaron always followed the law meticulously. 

Aaron was a boy genius; at the age of 12, he built Info Network, an early ancestor of Wikipedia. At the age of 13 he built Really Simple Syndication (RSS), the technology that is now near universally used to track virtually any publisher on the Internet, right from a blog such as mine, to the New York Times. If Aaron had not invented RSS, then I probably wouldn’t have been able to start out independently building my own audience, get noticed, and become a writer. Without Aaron you almost certainly would not be reading this now.

Later, he co-founded Creative Commons, the framework now used by millions of artists, writers, and publishers to free their work of the shackles of copyright with simple, clear open-access licences. Billions of pieces of work are now shared using this method. He also co-founded Reddit, a democratic social network that has become “the front page of the Internet,” delivering millions of people in any given moment to the most upvoted piece of information in their chosen networks. 

He went on to build Deaddrop, now called SecureDrop, a method now broadly used by news agencies to collect information from anonymous sources. He also built Open Library, a website with the goal of having a page dedicated to every book in existence. In 26 short years Aaron helped found countless organisations dedicated to freedom of information and democratic social progress. One of those organisations, Demand Progress, has been responsible for some of the largest successful grassroots political campaigns in U.S. history. Despite earning millions at a very young age from his creations, he was a passionate fighter against wealth disparity:

“It seems ridiculous that miners should have to hammer away until their whole bodies are dripping with sweat, faced with the knowledge that if they dare to stop, they won’t be able to put food on the table that night, while I get to make larger and larger amounts of money each day just by sitting watching TV, but apparently the world is ridiculous." — Aaron Swartz

Aaron soon realised a grand injustice existed in the U.S. Access to vast swathes of the core documents that make up the law are not freely available to the public. To access the law, you had to pay a complex bureaucratic website 10 cents per page. In fact, you still do, and it’s a $10 billion-per-year business. 

Of course, the law itself is not copyrighted. So when in 2008 Aaron wrote a piece of code to download 2.7 million documents from the PACER (Public Access to Court Electronic Records) database through a library terminal, and then made them freely available, Aaron was not technically breaking the law, as the FBI eventually conceded.

Technologist Carl Malamud explains: “PACER is an incredible abomination of government services; 10 cents per page; the most brain-dead code you have ever seen; you can’t search it; you can’t bookmark anything; you’ve got to have a credit card. These are public records; U.S. district courts are very important — it’s where a lot of our seminal litigation starts; civil rights cases, patent cases. Journalists, students, citizens, and lawyers all need access to PACER and it fights them every step of the way. People without means can’t see the law ... it’s a poll tax on access to justice.”

At the time Aaron made the documents available to the public there were only 17 libraries capable of freely accessing the law within the entire United States; that’s one access point for every 221,090 square miles (572,620 square km) of U.S soil.

In an unconnected hack, while at Stanford University Aaron downloaded the entire contents of the Westlaw legal database, a database he never publicly released, because that would have been illegal.

Analysis of the data Aaron obtained published in the Stanford Law Review revealed a pattern of massively corrupt practices involving top-level law professors being quietly paid by oil giants and other multi-billion dollar corporations, for the publication of biased legal opinions — “vanity research” purpose-built to be used to argue in court for the minimisation of punitive damages in existing multi-million dollar lawsuits.

I could go on about his many and varied achievements. I could go on about the incalculable good Aaron did for society. I could go on about the steps Aaron always took to act within the law, while he worked on its precipice, always for the betterment of others. I could go on about how while being in prime position to make untold millions more out of his creations, he lived modestly and spent night and day donating his time to fighting within the law for what is right, but it’s not what Aaron created that this story is about; it is what was taken from him, and with him, from all of us.

At the end of 2010, Aaron plugged a laptop directly into the server farm at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He’d written a Python script called “Keep Grabbing That Pie” to quietly download the entire contents of the JSTOR database of academic research. 

Aaron had complete legal access to the research he downloaded, through his university subscription. His crime, had Aaron ever made it to the dock, would essentially have been taking too many books out of the library. 

To their credit, when Aaron was caught, JSTOR chose not to press charges, but in a highly unusual legal decision, Aaron was set upon by the United States government with a string of 13 wire fraud-related felony charges.

On the 6th of January 2011, Aaron was arrested, allegedly assaulted by the police and placed in solitary confinement. In a strongly worded statement intended to send a message to hackers, federal prosecutors announced Aaron was facing felony charges that would result in up to 35 years in jail, restitution, asset forfeiture and up to a million dollar fine. He was released on $100,000 bail.

The government gave Aaron a non-negotiable demand that he accept the felony charges. Determined he had not committed a crime, he refused to plead guilty in return for a reduced sentence, and bans and restrictions on his computer use. This despite the fact that his legal costs had completely exhausted his financial resources and all the money that had been raised to defend him, a sum that ran into the millions of dollars.

On the 11th January 2013, two years of bitter legal proceedings later, and only two days after the prosecution had declined his counteroffer to a plea deal, he was found hanging dead in his apartment.

Aaron’s obituary was the first obituary I ever wrote. It doesn’t do justice to one of the greatest minds of our generation. It was written in a haze of shock, anger, and sadness the day of Aaron’s death. I wasn’t alone. An earthquake of grief reverberated around the Internet. His eulogy was read by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web. 

I never knew Aaron, but I am acutely aware of exactly how much I have benefited from his work, and how much we all stand to gain from the work he was doing. I studied at a university that couldn’t afford most useful journals, so I was dependent on the goodwill of others getting me the research I needed to pass. When I started out writing my first blog, Creative Commons gave me vast and easy access to sources of imagery I could legally and freely use to help illustrate my work; Reddit helped people find my writing even though they were mostly on the other side of the Atlantic. RSS let people that liked my work follow me without spending a penny, enabling me to build a career. For all of that, I will always be grateful to Aaron. 

Aaron died before he could finish his work, but unbeknownst to him, Alexandra had already picked up the baton where he and countless others in online communities dedicated to freedom of information left off.

Alexandra has not only matched the 4 million articles Aaron downloaded from JSTOR before he was caught, but also released the articles into the public domain along with 43 million more, and built Sci-Hub, a one-click instant paywall workaround that works not just on JSTOR, but also Elsevier and a whole host of other paywalled academic publishers.

If I were a religious man, I might say that we can only pray that Alexandra won’t face a fate similar to Aaron’s — that she will stay safe from prison and legal intimidation and those who wish she would disappear, that she can continue doing what she does best, making discoveries and creating things.

But to say this would be a lie. We can’t only pray.

We can do everything in our power to make sure the politicians we elect don’t allow corporations to throw the book at researchers who have no other way to conduct science than to share their work freely. We can’t allow politicians to throw away the keys to the libraries. We must convince academics to stop handing the keys to their work to gang masters who would happily see all of our scientific knowledge remain inaccessible to the vast majority of humanity.

In the words of Aaron himself:

“Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world's entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations. Want to read the papers featuring the most famous results of the sciences? You'll need to send enormous amounts to publishers like Reed Elsevier.

There are those struggling to change this. The Open Access Movement has fought valiantly to ensure that scientists do not sign their copyrights away, but instead ensure their work is published on the Internet, under terms that allow anyone to access it. But even under the best scenarios, their work will only apply to things published in the future. Everything up until now will have been lost.

That is too high a price to pay. Forcing academics to pay money to read the work of their colleagues? Scanning entire libraries, but only allowing the folks at Google to read them? Providing scientific articles to those at elite universities in the First World, but not to children in the global South? It's outrageous and unacceptable.

"I agree," many say, "but what can we do? The companies hold the copyrights; they make enormous amounts of money by charging for access, and it's perfectly legal — there's nothing we can do to stop them." But there is something we can, something that's already being done: We can fight back.

Those with access to these resources — students, librarians, scientists — you have been given a privilege. You get to feed at this banquet of knowledge while the rest of the world is locked out. But you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends.

Meanwhile, those who have been locked out are not standing idly by. You have been sneaking through holes and climbing over fences, liberating the information locked up by the publishers and sharing them with your friends.

But all of this action goes on in the dark, hidden underground. It's called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.

Large corporations, of course, are blinded by greed. The laws under which they operate require it — their shareholders would revolt at anything less. And the politicians they have bought off back them, passing laws giving them the exclusive power to decide who can make copies.

There is no justice in following unjust laws. It's time to come into the light and, in the grand tradition of civil disobedience, declare our opposition to this private theft of public culture.

We need to take information, wherever it is stored, make our copies, and share them with the world. We need to take stuff that's out of copyright and add it to the archive. We need to buy secret databases and put them on the Web. We need to download scientific journals and upload them to file-sharing networks. We need to fight for Guerilla Open Access.

With enough of us, around the world, we'll not just send a strong message opposing the privatization of knowledge — we'll make it a thing of the past. Will you join us?" - Aaron Swartz - July 2008, Eremo, Italy

Below is a gripping, thought-provoking and tear-jerking documentary on the events that led to Aaron’s death. It received a string of offers when it was nominated at Sundance, but in the spirit of Aaron’s beliefs the film’s producers have made it publicly available under a Creative Commons licence, so you can watch it in full below. It’s the most moving film I’ve seen in years.

At the time of Aaron’s arrest, Alexandra’s website was already in operation, but working on opposite sides of the world, the two were unbeknown to each other. “When I read in the news about Aaron for the first time I thought, that's the guy who could be my best friend and collaborator,” Alexandra told me.

While Alexandra later came to find Aaron’s writings inspiring and is working on translating them to Russian, she maintains her greatest inspiration was the countless “inspired people” all around the world who share knowledge in online communities based on their shared belief that knowledge should be free.

Read Part One: How one researcher — Alexandra Elbakyan — has made nearly every scientific paper ever published available for free to anyone, anywhere in the world.

Follow Simon Oxenham @Neurobonkers on TwitterFacebookRSS or join the mailing list, for weekly analysis of science and psychology news. 

Graphics and video courtesy of The Documentary Network (CC-BY-NC-SA). Creative Commons infographic by Shiamm Donnelly (CC-BY-NC-SA).

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The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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