I am sad about the overeager prosecution and tragic death of Aaron Swartz. Since I have a little experience in the world of academic publications I have been thinking about how things can change in the future to ensure the freedom of academic knowledge.
For those who may not have experience in this area I've outlined below a little bit about how the process works and then below that, some thoughts about what the future might look like, but I'm interested also to hear your thoughts about how it could operate more freely.
The academic peer review and publication process
There are many, many academic journals. Some are put out via professional organizations, like the American Medical Association (JAMA and its associated publications). Others are independently run. Most journals have an editor-in-chief and a board of associate editors who are responsible for reviewing all the articles that are submitted. Often these people are professors at a university, and editing the journal is just one of their work tasks, but they aren't paid for that task by the journal. The editing work can 'count' as one of their academic obligations when their work is reviewed either in the tenure process or as part of the periodic employment / merit reviews academic departments do for their employees.
Once an article is assigned to a particular editor, that person is responsible for then identifying academics who will review the article for the peer review process. The editor emails these individuals and asks if they are willing to review an article on X topic by Y date. If you respond yes, they send you the article and you read it, make comments and make a recommendation (accept as is [virtually never happens], accept with revisions, or reject). Then the editor gathers these recommendations and makes a decision which they convey to the first author, who can then either revise and resubmit the article to the same journal or try their luck elsewhere (or give up).
Publication and copyright
Academic journals are typically published by one of several publishing groups (Sage, Elsevier, Oxford, Wiley, etc). As an academic at a university, you automatically sign over copyright to the journal when you publish the article. They send you a form you have to sign to give them the copyright. Even though you wrote the article, the journal itself owns the copyright to it; it is very different from publishing a novel, for example. (As an academic author, you are also not paid for your work. Journals don't buy articles the way popular magazines do.) On the other hand, if you are a federal employee who is publishing in an academic journal, you are not allowed to assign copyright; since you did the work as part of your federal employment, the articles are supposed to be in the public domain, even though a particular journal issue may be publishing articles with and without assigned copyright.
The truth is, though, that in addition to the articles by federal employees, probably most academic articles are ultimately funded by taxpayer dollars, in that they are generated by people working either (a) at public universities, or (b) at private universities but funded at least partly through federal research grants. Certainly there will be cases where this is not true, such as through hard dollars at a private university or through foundation grant funding, but a large chunk of the research that is published was ultimately funded through public money. For that reason, and because there is no benefit to keeping a monopoly on academic knowledge (even though most who want to access it will have the ability through their places of employment), it seems to me that access to articles should be readily available to the public who paid for many of them. Already with funding streams being reduced, university libraries have sometimes stopped subscribing to particular journals, and that can make accessing needed articles difficult; you can access an article if your library subscribes to the journal, but it can be time consuming or expensive to get access if they don't.
Paying for publication, and looking forward
As we all know, the saying goes, "Publish or perish." The peer reviewed publications process is a critical component of keeping a job at an academic institution. Peer review can be idiosyncratic and sometimes odd, but it provides a layer of 'checking' that gives integrity to the publication of the research. As an academic you can self-publish reports and papers, but they don't receive the same level of 'credit' or credibility in a merit review that a peer-reviewed article does. Moving to self-publication for all material isn't a feasible option for those reasons.
Given that academic journals will still be needed, how can we make them more readily available? Publication will cost a lot less in the future as journals move to an electronic format than they did when they had to print and distribute paper copies. However, there will still be a nonzero cost to paying a graphic designer or other person to lay out and format the articles as online and/or PDF publications.
Currently, publishers use the money they receive from academic library subscriptions to pay for the time of the designers who lay out the articles. If academic journals became free and all self-published, the journals that are funded through associations, which have membership fees, might have a funding stream that they could use to pay editorial assistants and designers to keep track of articles and lay them out. However, the journals that are not tied to a particular organization don't have that type of funding. Public university budgets have been cut a lot in the past several years and one of the main areas they have cut have been nonacademic staff. Right now there is not a lot of extra money available to fund people like editorial assistants or graphic designers, if a professor who edited a journal wanted to publish it without help from a publishing house. There are some online only journals that are published without the expense that paper journals have, such as the Emerging Infectious Diseases Journal put out by CDC. But the public agency or university has to be willing to put the money down to pay for staff time for formatting, interacting with authors, and scheduling articles in the interest of expanding the broader base of academic knowledge. I suppose it might also be possible for NSF or NIH to fund some of this time, which likely would not amount to much compared with many of the things they currently fund.
So, there are some possible ways to move forward that would allow for greater access to publications and open copyright, but it will require some rethinking and it would need to move away from the private sector journal based system we have right now. I welcome your thoughts and ideas about ways we could allow information to be accessed more freely. Also, please correct me if I have made any errors, I haven't worked for a publisher so these are my impressions from being on the author end as well as work in an academic library during college.