Open Science Matters For K-12 Education

The sad news of Aaron Swartz’s suicide has inspired a lot of nice tributes to his life and his work (e.g. this, and this). Swartz faced life in prison for downloading millions of academic articles from JSTOR, and he was reportedly battling depression.

With any suicide there is always the need to ask “why?”, and given that Swartz may still be alive if it weren’t for needless academic paywalls, there’s a particularly strong urge to examine why we have a system that restricts access to knowledge and punishes those who attempt to disseminate it to the world. The simple answer is that beyond a small community of scientists, writers, and internet activists, there’s not enough support to take on academic publishers.

Changing these circumstances is difficult, but one answer is getting parents, politicians, and the public to understand that open access is important for all levels of our education system. You can’t hear President Obama give a major speech in which he doesn’t lament the lack of young people interested in STEM fields, yet nobody seems to think the fact that scientific research is inaccessible has any connection to this outcome. But just as fewer kids would be interested in becoming NBA players if it cost $29.99 to watch any game on TV, fewer kids will be interested in science if it costs them $29.99 to read about research.

Now I’m not naive. Very few K-12 students are interested in reading actual journal articles. But lack of access trickles down and restricts scientific content in places that high school kids are likely to encounter it (magazine articles, blogs, etc.)  I’m fortunate to have the means to access nearly any article I want, but without that this blog wouldn’t exist, nor would the possibility of some 10th grader coming across a blog post on creativity and developing an interest in how the brain works. Imagine how many more blogs, articles, and talks there would be if there were no paywalls? Imagine how easy it would be for teachers to demonstrate the real world applications and career potential of science if it was easy to give their students a peek at actual research? You can’t make young people interested in something unless you put it in their hands.

Paul Smith wrote that Swartz “was constantly trying to democratize genius. He wanted everyone to be as curious.” There are echoes of this sentiment in the complaints you hear from parents and lawmakers about how our youth lack the curiosity and drive to do great things. Yet for whatever reason none of these powerful interests thought to support what Swartz was actually doing to change things. But they still could and they should. The question is whether they can be convinced.

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