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How Aaron Swartz paved way for Jack Andraka's revolutionary cancer test

Jack Andraka's breakthrough pancreatic cancer test would have never come about were it not for access to online journals -- what Internet guru Aaron Swartz was promoting before his death. Andraka "religiously" used free online academic journals in the research because "in most online databases, articles cost about $35, and there are only about 10 pages."

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Jack Andraka (Intel/ YouTube)

Jack Andraka, the 15-year-old whiz kid behind a revolutionary new tool in cancer research, has many things in common with Aaron Swartz, the phenomenon at the center of a continuing online freedom debate in the US. 

Swartz was also just 15 when he helped co-develop RSS, a form of Web publication, that has enabled dissidents in China and the Middle East, North Africa region to circumvent censors. Andraka is on his way to revolutionizing the medical profession with a cost-effective, much less invasive test for early-stage pancreatic cancer and a number of other diseases (detailed in the video below).

It'll be three to five years before it's on the market, both as a take home test and in doctor's offices,” the well-spoken high school student told The Vancouver Observer.

But Swartz and Andraka aren't only connected by their teenage prodigy.

Andraka used free online academic journals in the research that resulted in his invention.

I used them religiously,” Andraka said, “Just because, in most online databases, articles cost about [US]$35, and there are only about 10 pages." 

The public funds a lot of this research. Shouldn't the public have access to it?”

An online digital activist and developer, Aaron Swartz committed suicide earlier this month, weeks before the start of his trial, where he would face three decades in prison for allegedly “stealing” millions of pay-walled articles from Online academic service JSTOR to make them available to the public for free.

I believe [Swartz's] actions were mostly justified,” Andraka said, “The public funded a lot of that research. It shouldn't be held inaccessible to the public.”


Swartz's best friend and colleague in many of his battles for free and open Internet access Ben Wikler agreed with Andraka.

Poor and rich people pay taxes for the research that goes into these journals. Only those wealthy enough to pay for subscriptions or go to universities can reap the fruits of their funding... It reinforces fundamental social inequalities,” Wikler said, on the phone from Brooklyn.

Wikler's Canadian counterparts also say that publicly funded research are inherently the property of the public.

Academic articles are created with public funds, within the public university system,” said open Internet advocate OpenMedia.ca's managing director Reilly Yeo.

Most writers of these articles are never paid directly for their services. Academic articles should definitely be freely available - that's how we'll see the full potential of the Internet to level the playing field for access to knowledge.”

Footing the bill for book smarts

Still, some of the media published in the aftermath of Swartz's suicide has observed that service's like JSTOR's are labor and cost intensive, and that it is financially implausible to tear down pay walls.

JSTOR spokesperson Heidi McGregor told VO the company's total expenses for 2012 were $52.6 million, garnering a total revenue of $53.2 million. 

(4) Comments

Donna January 29th 2013 | 8:20 PM

This kid's work is the best tribute to what Aaron stood for. RIP

Emil Sab February 1st 2013 | 10:22 PM

Documentary short on Jack Andraka:

https://vimeo.com/51887901

PAUL February 8th 2013 | 10:22 PM

His name was Aaron Swartz

Carlo February 12th 2013 | 11:11 AM

How about an open source library, maintained by volunteers and donations? It works for Wikipedia.

If it's not properly maintained, people can still go and purchase access to the articles from another source.