Science is not a Crime

July 25, 2014

Recently, a Colombian masters student named Diego Gomez became the target of criminal charges. His crime: putting an academic article he did not author online at a site called Scribd. This case brings to mind the tragic death of Aaron Swartz last year. Swartz downloaded tens of thousands of academic articles from behind an academic firewall, apparently in protest to the very use of firewalls in academic publishing. The rationale behind this is simple: most basic science resulting in academic papers is, after all, publicly funded. Why shouldn’t the public have access to the findings of those studies? Another element of the rationale for opening up all scientific findings is also simple: science succeeds best when pursued in the open. I’ve written about this with my PhD student Floris Kreiken in light of Karl Popper’s notions about science and society (feel free to download and read our paper here).

Diego Gomez is persuing a masters degree in conservation and biodiversity in Costa Rica, and like many of us who research academic topics discovered that access to scientific papers is not always easy. A number of academic publishers have erected significant paywalls making it sometimes difficult to access a particular paper from a particular journal. In my case, my academic affiliation is with a technical university although I research general topics in the humanities – philosophy in particular. The library at my university does not subscribe to a number of humanities journals that would be useful for my research. Fortunately, I have a number of friends and colleagues at other universities who often have access to resources unavailable to me, and who can be depended upon to assist with finding materials so I can do my own research. Sharing links and PDFs of scientific papers is standard practice among academics, and most scientists I know will actually send offprints of their articles for free and without question. In truth, this is necessary for science as an institution to survive. Without access, citation, criticism, and building upon the previous works of others, science as we know it cannot exist. CFI’s own academic journal Philo is now transitioning to an Open Journal Systems platform and will be available as open access research, as it should.

Gomez now faces a trial and must defend his actions in court because a scientist whose works he procured and shared decided to pursue him and the government of Colombia was convinced to file criminal charges. Usually in the U.S. and elsewhere, this level of infringement would be a civil action, but Colombia adopted criminal sanctions and a tough regime of IP protection in part based upon political pressures and an international treaty used as part of trade negotiations with the U.S. and other large IP producing economies. There are a number of “fair use” exceptions that generally cover scientific, educational, or academic uses of copyrighted materials, and if you read up on the case here you’ll note there are some potentially available defenses (including his lack of malicious intent, and failure to seek money – he was pursuing science). The fact that he is being dragged into court by a scientist who believed that somehow his economic rights to receive royalties trumped the fundamental necessities of good science is what is most depressing about this case. Don’t we all deserve access to the fruits of scientific study? Why must results of mostly publicly-funded research be kept bottled up? In this age, we have a ready and instant means of disseminating knowledge worldwide, one which if fully embraced could prove to be a boon for science and society. Those who think that profit is the goal, or even a meaningful side-effect of academic work, have perverted one of the most basic institutions of science and only serve to hold back progress for all. Let’s hope that Diego Gomez’s treatment is fair, and that the result will be a full acquital. Meanwhile, let’s remember that scientific knowledge is part of a public commons and embrace open science and publishing as the best path forward.