As news of the death of respected activist and developer Aaron Swartz rippled across the Internet yesterday, admirers kick-started what would become a mass demonstration honoring his commitment to open access to information.
Swartz, who committed suicide Friday, faced charges for attempting to publicly release academic papers from the digital library JSTOR, which potentially could have sent him to jail for more than 35 years if he were convicted. In a statement, Swartz's family blamed the intensity of the charges for contributing in part to his suicide.
By Sunday morning, hundreds of academics had begun tweeting links to their copyright-protected research as a protest in Swartz's honor, using the hastag #pdftribute.
Links scraped from Twitter posts featuring the hastag are being aggregated at Pdftribute.net. Many of the links appear to be to academic papers.
According to CNET, Micah Allen, a researcher in cognitive science and neuroscience, was an early proponent of the protest, posting it among the many tribute threads on Reddit, the popular social news site that Swartz helped design.
On his blog, Allen credited Oxford University PhD student Jessica Richman, and Eva Vivalt, a development economist, with creating the hastag, contacting like-minded individuals and reaching out to Anonymous, who helped take the protest viral.
Richman wrote on ScienceCitizen.org Jan. 13:
Late last night, I noticed that @evavivalt was opening access to her papers online in tribute to the memory of Aaron Swartz. I tweeted to some people I know in Silicon Valley, and to some friends of Aaron’s, and then Anonymous picked it up — and it just caught on. We’ve now had over 3.5 million impressions and over 500 tweets per hour.
As the movement gained steam, Vivalt urged researchers to take action, and others to contribute their ideas:
Love the general support of #pdftribute, but I'd like to see more links to papers and more thoughts on how to move forward.
— Eva Vivalt (@evavivalt) January 13, 2013
In 2011, Swartz was charged with stealing millions of scientific journal articles from a computer archive at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in an attempt to make them available for free. He pleaded not guilty, and his federal trial was to begin next month.
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