Aaron Swartz would have turned 32 November 8th. He died five years and 10 months ago, and since then, like this weekend, the annual Aaron Swartz weekend takes place with all kinds of hackathons and events in his memory. At the time of his suicide Swartz was being prosecuted for downloading material in bulk from JSTOR, a scientific papers archive (even though he had legitimate access to it).

In 2014 the Smart New World exhibition took place in Kunsthalle Düsseldorf, which Elmine and I visited. Part of it was the installation “18.591 Articles Sold By JSTOR for $19 = $353.229” with those 18.591 articles printed out, showing what precisely is behind the paywall, and what Swartz was downloading. Articles, like those shown, from the 19th century, since long in the public domain, sold for $19 each. After Swartz’ death JSTOR started making a small percentage of their public domain content freely accessible, limited to a handful papers per month.

The Düsseldorf exhibit was impressive, as it showed the volumes of material, but the triviality of most material too. It’s a long tail of documents with extremely low demand, being treated equally as recent papers in high demand.

Scientific journal publishers are increasingly a burden on the scientific world, rent-seeking gatekeepers. Their original value added role, that of multiplication and distribution to increase access, has been completely eroded, if not actually fully reversed.