Open Access, Open Data, and Open Educational Resources

Category Archives: Book Reviews

Reading John Willinsky on Open Access (Part 2)

The Access PrincipleJohn Willinsky’s The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (2006) was the first book published on open access (that I am aware of, anyway). I remember reading it sometime around 2008 and it’s certainly had a profound influence on my thinking about the dissemination of research.

Willinsky states the principle in his introduction (p. xxi):

A commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of such work as far as possible and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit from it.

Willinsky’s deep understanding of the history and philosophy of openness is apparent throughout, from Aristotle (“All humankind by nature desires to know”) to economist Fritz Machlup’s concept of knowledge as a near-perfect public good. As with his published articles, a few of which I sketched in the previous post, The Access Principle is remarkable for its multifaceted approach. Each chapter covers a different aspect of open access, including copyright, scholarly societies, economics, development, and indexing, to name a few. In addition, there are six short appendices on such topics as the varieties of open access, journal management economics, and journal metadata.

In Chapter 8 (“Public”) Willinsky responds to those who question the public’s interest in published research (p. 125):

… proving that the public has sufficient interest in, or capacity to understand, the results of scholarly research is not the issue. The public’s right of access to this knowledge is not something people have to earn. It is grounded in a basic right to know.

Willinsky has repeatedly asserted this right to know in his writings, and devotes a chapter to it in The Access Principle (“Rights,” pp. 143-154). In the first paragraph he states (p. 143):

The right to know that is inherent in the access principle has a claim on our humanity that stands with other basic rights, whether to life, liberty, justice, or respect. More than that, access to knowledge is a human right that is closely associated with the ability to defend, as well as to advocate for, other rights.

Willinsky proceeds by examining the political scientist Richard Pierre Claude’s work on science and human rights, as well as Jacques Derrida on the right to philosophy and its importance to the humanities. The right to know “is about having fair and equitable access to a public good” and it is the responsibility of researchers to “ensure that there are no unwarranted impediments” to information. Willinsky cites Derrida’s independent questioning of everything and adds that it doesn’t make any sense that this independent questioning would be closed off to those outside academia (p. 148, 153):

If the independent university is to profess an “unlimited commitment to the truth,” as Derrida puts it, it must at some point be concerned with an unimpeded right of access to that truth.


How are we to ensure the university’s contribution to a fairer world, if access to the research it produces about the world is itself a source of inequality… ?

While Peter Suber’s excellent and more recent Open Access focuses on the details of how open access works (or should work) today, The Access Principle provides a broader rationale for open access. While the open access numbers have changed in the seven years since its publication, this book conveys ideas that have not lost any power.

The Access Principle is available online and can also be found in Newman Library.

Intellectual Property Strategy by John Palfrey

Intellectual Property Strategy (Update May 14, 2018: This book is now available in an open access edition with additional material.)

John Palfrey’s Intellectual Property Strategy (MIT Press, 2012) is the first book I’ve read on the subject. Having read one of his previous books, Born Digital, and because it is in the same book series as Peter Suber’s Open Access, I suspected openness would be a theme, and I wasn’t disappointed. This review is mostly about that theme, rather than all aspects of the book, so keep that in mind. Palfrey is a well qualified writer on this subject, having taught law at Harvard, practiced intellectual property (IP) law, cofounded several tech startups, and is a venture executive. The book is aimed at CEOs and senior managers, and is short enough that it might be finished on a cross-country flight.

The four areas of IP are patent, copyright, trademark, and trade secret. Palfrey first addresses the prevailing “sword and shield” IP strategy by pointing out that it benefits lawyers more than organizations. He urges readers to “give special consideration to strategies of openness rather than exclusion, especially in the information context” (p. 3).

IP is a nonrival good- more than one party can use it simultaneously. The author points out that IP often gains in value the more that it is used, which is a flaw in the “full exclusion” approach. Palfrey is quite familiar with universities and libraries, and interestingly uses MIT’s OpenCourseWare as an example of using openness to increase assets. However, it’s important to establish ownership rights in order to give IP away (p. 56):

It may seem counterintuitive, but even the strategies of openness that I urge you to consider need to be grounded first in the system of rights in order to work smoothly.

Palfrey spends some time talking about open innovation, that is, using openly available or customer-generated information. For example, Zillow as well as legal publishers Lexis and Westlaw thrive in this environment. He cites a study (PDF) showing that the fair use economy in the U.S. supports hundreds of billions in exports, employs millions, and is growing by 5% annually. Palfrey warns that zealous protectionism can backfire, such as demanding royalties for using the song “Happy Birthday” (a demand that now appears fraudulent rather than protectionist).

Nonprofits as a special case are examined in Chapter 7. The differing missions of for-profits and nonprofits “opens up new possibilities” and can make IP strategy more important. Using libraries as an example, Palfrey suggests digitization in collaboration with for-profit partners, with a limited term of exclusivity during which the library receives royalties. Summarizing, he says (p. 120):

If the default in the for-profit world is to generate maximum revenues from the licensing of intellectual property, the default in the non-profit setting is probably to make intellectual property as broadly available as possible.

There are a few stumbles along the way- Palfrey occasionally uses the term “open access” in a confusingly loose way (p. 89, 105) despite discussing it accurately elsewhere (p. 118), and offers Google Wave (p. 68) as an example of open innovation (oops!). And he suggests that universities license IP in a nonexclusive way (p. 119), lowering fees for greater societal benefit (perhaps I’m too cynical, but I don’t see this happening).

I recommend this book as an introduction to IP in general- it’s a quick and informative read. Intellectual Property Strategy is available in Newman Library, and Palfrey’s book talk is below (beginning at 7:00).

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