When Aaron Swartz committed suicide in 2013, he was facing up to 35 years in prison and a one-million dollar fine for 13 felony counts related to violating copyright laws. Today the NY Southern District Court ordered the shut down of a website (Sci-Hub) run by Alexandra Elbakyan, a neuroscience graduate student from Kazakhstan, for violations of copyright laws. (The Sci-Hub server is believed to be in Russia and isn’t shutting down.) As leaders in the open access movement, the actions of Swartz and Elbakyan were about making scientific publications available for free.
Their solution is one approach to the problem of access to science. There is a related access problem that citizen science can help tackle.
Scientists communicate with each other through the peer-reviewed literature. One discovery sparks a new study that leads to another discovery and helps make sense of past discoveries, and so on, as our collective understanding grows. Because the exchange of ideas, insights, methodologies, and discoveries is critical to scientific progress, scientists must not be isolated from one another. Yet, scientists in less affluent parts of the world can feel the most isolated, often from not having enough financial resources to access the scientific literature.
The open access movement challenges the financial structure of the current publishing model in science, but there is more to access than freely getting scientific papers in hand (or on the screen). Access is more than viewing the words. Access also involves turning words into meaningful information. There are several ways that citizen science projects that focus on words contribute to various and sundry ways of opening access to science.