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. It provides full text searches of almost 2,000 journals. More than 8,000 institutions in more than 160 countries have access to JSTOR; 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.