Researcher Faces Jail For Sharing An Academic Thesis Online

This is outrageous, for many reasons. streetwrk.com/Flickr; CC BY-ND 2.0

Robin Andrews 22 May 2017, 20:24

Back in 2014, Diego Gomez, a master’s student at the University of Quindío in Colombia, came across a thesis in a library that he decided to upload to a server that anyone could access. The author of the document discovered this and claimed that his rights had been violated, and decided to sue.

Thanks to an agreement between the country and the US, Gomez is being prosecuted under US copyright law, and in his case, he faces a jail term of eight years. He’s been fighting against it in the courts ever since, and in the next few weeks, a verdict is due.

As reported by STAT News, Gomez, 29, said that he acted in “good faith, in gratitude for all the support I had received from other researchers in Colombia and other countries, and voluntarily for academic purposes and non-profit.” He told reporters that he had “never imagined that this activity could be considered a crime.”

The idea that sharing a thesis would result in economic damages to the author – the basis on which the case was made against Gomez – is obviously absurd. Theses are normally only ever read fully by their authors and two or three examiners – very rarely do they set the world on fire, at least in this form.

Academic papers, of course, are uploaded online all the time outside of the paywalls that most academic journals possess. You have sites like ResearchGate and arXiv, where authors of the papers tend to upload pre-prints or even final copies of academic papers for others to have a peek at.

It’s a fine line, though. Uploading even your own academic study to a freely accessible server is illegal if it’s already been accepted by a publishing house. That publisher now owns your work, and it seems ridiculous, but you often have to pay a fee to access it.

As horrific as Gomez’ case is, it reminds us that the debate over the public’s access to scientific data and research is a complex one.

Few would disagree that science needs to be shared with the public more effectively, and institutions who can afford to pay the unbelievably high subscription costs for access to academic journals need to open up their treasure chests of papers to institutions that aren’t able to, particularly when it comes to medical research.

There is, however, a role for publishers, and simply doing away with their editorial services and the (albeit flawed) peer-reviewed system would be reckless. This problem requires evolution, not revolution.

Currently, journals that are open access – meaning anyone can see their contents – often require extortionate one-time fees in order for academics to make them open access in the first place. These fees could often be spent on more researchers and students, and often the prestige of paywalled journals like Science and Nature prevail.

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There’s also an argument about what papers to make open access and why. Unless you’re scientifically literate, the public could read through academic papers and interpret them incorrectly – a dangerous path to walk down when it comes to health research.

In any case, there’s a middle ground out there somewhere, and hopefully academia manages to find it. In the meantime, threatening a researcher with jail time is not a good move – not in the slightest.

The case has echoes of that of 26-year-old computer programmer Aaron Swartz, who back in 2011 logged in to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) servers and downloaded thousands of academic papers from publisher JSTOR, hoping to make them freely available on the Web.

He was arrested, and was told he would face a 35-year-long prison sentence on federal data-theft charges. Faced with this awful future, and struggling with long-term depression, he hanged himself.

[H/T: STAT News]

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