Jack Andraka and Open Source Information

On Saturday 28 August, 2015, I attended the Melbourne Writers Festival to listen to 18 year old, Jack Andraka. As a child he and his brother had an “all things can go” approach to ‘all things scientific’. His parents encouraged this passionate interest in science but asked him just one thing, “Please, don’t blow up the house.”

After losing an uncle to pancreatic cancer, at the age of 15, Jack developed a 30 page procedure for a non invasive method for detecting pancreatic cancer. After being rejected by 199 research companies, Jack overcame the stereotype of being a gay, scientific nerd to have his method supported by a research company. Besides being a great inspirational story, the message for parents, and the rest of the village who raise kids……. whether you have kids who live for English, reading, public speaking, sport, dance, surfing, politics, maths, science, technology etc etc., do you best to let them follow their passion as part of a good education.

As part of his talk Jack spoke about the cost of getting research articles from”behind the paywall”. Jack spoke about the frustration of paying $30:00 for an article which may not have contained what it promised, making his crusade to cure pancreatic cancer another step further away. As an aside, he highlighted the irony, “You can pay $1:00 to download a Katy Perry song that you can play over and over, but it costs you $30 to access information which might help you save the world”.

Soon after, Jack highlighted Albert Swartz who, in 2011, devised a method of downloading large numbers of articles from JSTOR, using a computer hidden in a closet at MIT.

“JSTOR s a digital library founded in 1995. Originally containing digitized back issues of academic journals, it now also includes books and primary sources, and current issues of journals.[4] It provides full text searches of almost 2,000 journals.[5] More than 8,000 institutions in more than 160 countries have access to JSTOR;[5] most access is by subscription, but some older public domain content is freely available to anyone” Wikipedia https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JSTOR

Rightly or wrongly, Swartz was considered by some to be brave enough to challenge the unfairness, hypocrisy and inequality of taypayer-funded scientific research held by publishing firms which then charged outrageous fees to access the resulting academic papers. This is exactly the frustration felt by Jack Andraka, hence why he advocates quite strongly for crowd sourcing information which is freely accessible to academics and researchers. His reason for this is that it will far more quickly enable cures for various diseases, including cancer.

Swartz pushed boundaries. What he did may have been ‘victimless crime’, but the fact is, he did steal. Regardless, the pressure was such that in January 2013 he took his own life.  Is it the case that, “people can say more or less what they like online; but the moment they look like mobilising people, then you come down on them like the ton of bricks”? guardian.com 7/2/2015.

Let’s hope that one day we can see the value in the collective sharing of information for the common good of humankind.


3 thoughts on “Jack Andraka and Open Source Information

  1. Hi Greg,
    Jack Andraka’s story is similar to Aaron Swarts’ frustrations about the closed nature of traditional institutions attitudes toward information sharing. Some useful links for Aaron’s story are:

    1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aaron_Swartz


    2. https://www.google.com.au/url?sa=t&rct=j&q=&esrc=s&source=video&cd=1&cad=rja&uact=8&ved=0CBwQtwIwAGoVChMIgrWxk4TcxwIVhCymCh2aJAQu&url=http%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DvXr-2hwTk58&usg=AFQjCNHaq14HWPDJ1mRsPeeZ6rwxBNB01A&sig2=F8nfqdRpcKN0WtOoZvgdJw&bvm=bv.102022582,d.dGY

    The video demonstrates a rising significance for our social values to be adjusted toward more equitable directions. Innovative ideas and methods are being developed in Open communities such as the NonProfit Commons. Another source of info about this is here:

  2. Greg, a powerful and astute blog post. Thank you for your insights into open access to scholarly work. It was also a sharp reminder to me, once again, that as a student at one university and a teacher at another I have excellent access to online scholarly work that others do not. It seems we need a whole new financial model to scholarly journals – and we need to open up databases to those who want them – why should a student like Jake have to pay for articles?? It makes no sense – university scholarship, adoption, what ever the term….let’s get these students into the system at least and support their passions.
    I will never forget when I worked in Zambia and the senior IT teacher had the best 6 computers in the school locked up behind a grill to be used ONLY by the older students in his classes…..for a total of about 12 hours a week! In addition the only Internet-connected computer (in 1997-98) at this same school was locked in a room for staff access only – and of course in those days all the expat teachers did was check their email! My frustration then was high….and this sense of ridiculousness and unfairness remains with me today. Teach others how to use the tools/resources etc. wisely if there is concern about breakage or finding inappropriate material….but do NOT lock up resources that will allow others to learn, mature, create new knowledge, share with the world and ultimately improve the world!

    • I couldn’t agree more, Julie. How long are we going to restrict our ability to answer the world’s great challenges, including current asylum seeker and refugee challenges? How long will we wait for solutions to real world problems? If information was more easily accessible and there were crowd-sourced, solution focused groups, there would be increased chances for quicker resolutions to live in a better, globally responsible world!

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