22 October 2009

John Willinsky on Open Access

As part of Open Access Week, John Willinsky, currently of Stanford University, regaled a large audience at OISE this noon hour. Open access, according to Willinsky, means free online access to peer-reviewed, published literature. The concept reflects the trust in which the public has invested among academics (particularly, but not necessarily exclusively) relative to human knowledge and the fundamental human right to know. Public education, after all, is primarily about access to knowledge: even in the K-12 system the focus is almost exclusively on basic reading, writing, and 'rithmetic skill-building (although that in itself is somewhat problematic) - all skills that enable access to knowledge.

Currently, only 20% of all scholarly articles are available through Open Access. The good news is that the percentage is going up, and it's going up thanks to three primary mechanisms. First, the major journals cartel (Elsevier, Springer, Taylor and Francis, Wiley-Blackwell) now grants the right for authors to post electronic versions of their final, peer-reviewed (but not copy-edited) draft on an institutional archive or private web repository (like a blog). Willinsky notes that an academic's responsibility to publish is only the beginning: there is also a responsibility to disseminate knowledge for everyone's benefit, especially since all academic research is conducted either through direct public funding of institutions and research grants, or indirect public funding through the tax-exempt status of (American) private universities. He observes that a recent study found that authors who archive their work for Open Access in this way are three times more likely to be cited than those who rely solely on being published in one of the slightly less than infinite number of academic journals that exist "out there."

The second piece of good news is that the number of Open Access academic journals is increasing, and increasing at a startling rate. He estimates that there are now about 5,000 online, Open Access journals covering every discipline in the academy. For example, the Public Library of Science boasts seven medical and scientific journals that publish leading and ground-breaking research in biology, medicine, computational biology, genetics, and others. The third piece of good news is that over 100 academic institutions have adopted a mandate that their respective scholarly production will be either published in Open Access journals, or archived for Open Access. In Canada, CIHR - the federal funding body for health research - requires Open Access publication for its funded projects. This, of course, makes sense: the research is publicly funded; the resulting knowledge should be publicly available. Willinsky calls for more institutions (like, say, OISE) to take a public stand on Open Access and declare a similar policy mandating its faculty and grad students to publish in Open Access journals, or to make drafts of their work publicly available.

The Open Access debate often becomes entwined with the copyright debate, and economics. The argument often follows that of the person who attempts to make a living from their creative output, like the fiction author, musician, painter, composer, or sculptor. However, academics are different in a significant way. Whereas the direct economic value provided by a work of fiction (arguably) diminishes (but not necessarily - Cory Doctorow, for example, argues convincingly against this) when the work is freely available, the value to an academic of her work becoming openly and freely available increases. The value of academic knowledge increases when it is shared: the value of one's learning is only measured by its consequential value to others.

As my regular readers know, I am a firm believer in Open Access. Most of my scholarly production has been posted via my blog under Creative Commons, and even my dissertation draft on Valence Theory is available, chapter by chapter, hot off the word processor. It's very simple, really: together, we're all smarter.

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1 comment:

houshuang said...

Great writeup of the OA event at OISE, thanks for coming and for sharing.

I also winced a bit at how unproblematic it was for him to dismiss OA to things like novels - I appreciate that it's a whole different ballgame, and I am not arguing for complicating the talk with these issues - but as you mention, there are a lot of cultural producers who are investigating alternative distribution- and business models, and doing so very successfully.

Let's see if we can make these ideas even more widespread at OISE!