EDIT [18/1/13]: At almost exactly the same time as I was posting about how the revolution was coming, the revolution started. Mathematicians are setting up community-run, open access journals independent of larger publishers.
I had never heard of Aaron Swartz before he died. Swartz was 2 1/2 years younger than me and spent his life working on, with, and around the internet and its various limitations. I have a lot of respect for what he accomplished, not only in terms of the technical progress that he was a part of, but also because of his philosophy about open access to information. In the wake of his death, supporters took to Twitter to post free copies of their publications, whether or not the material was in the public domain. This reflects Swartz’s actions in downloading millions of academic papers from the MIT network which precipitated the court case that he was fighting when he chose to end his life.
However, while I agree with his philosophy (as I have mentioned before), I cannot agree with his actions. While I agree with the sentiment behind #PDFtribute, I cannot take part because it is not legal. Everybody should have access to food and water, but you should not go stealing from supermarkets to give to the poor. In the same way, everybody should have access to information, but you cannot steal it from companies who control the copyright. The answer lies not in the Robin Hood approach, but in a democratic and legal revolution in the way that we think about academic publishing.
The university at which I work was recently given a considerable sum of money to pay for open access publishing for all articles published as a result of UK Government funding as part of a national scheme. The idea is that, rather than simply publishing for free in a journal that is not readily accessible without extortionate fees ($30 per article is about average, I think) the academic will either publish in the same journal but pay an article processing charge which results in the article being freely available online, or select an alternative journal that offers such an option. Here we have, then, a system which is changing. I will not argue that it is going to be anywhere near perfect, and I am certain that there are additional advances that we can make to ensure that maximum access to information is assured, but this is no small victory.
Here’s a short video explaining why this kind of open access is necessary: