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OA Week Event: Keynote Address by John Willinsky

John Willinsky, Distinguished Innovator in Residence, gave the keynote address for Open Access Week at Virginia Tech Thursday night in the Graduate Life Center auditorium. “What Is It About the History of Learning that Calls Out for Open Access to Research and Scholarship?” revealed not only historical aspects of scholarship in general but connections between Virginia Tech and his founding of the Public Knowledge Project.

John Willinsky, Open Access Week 2013 keynote at Virginia Tech

John Willinsky, Open Access Week 2013 keynote at Virginia Tech

When Virginia Tech became the first university to require electronic theses and dissertations (ETDs) in 1997, the software for presenting them online was made freely available. Willinsky used the software to post ETDs online (with their authors’ permission, of course), though he discovered that implementation was not as easy as it could have been. This concept of providing freely available software for the purpose of open dissemination of research inspired his founding of the Public Knowledge Project, which provides open source software for producing open access journals, monographs, and conference proceedings. (Today there are 5,000 journals using PKP’s Open Journal Systems, about half of them in the developing world.)

Not only is there a human right to knowledge, any knowledge claim depends on being public. To investigate the nature of knowledge we must address the concept of intellectual property, which is culturally pervasive yet rarely taught or examined in our universities. A university’s relationship to intellectual property is different due to its public or non-profit legal status, and its educational purpose affords it status in the evaluation of the fair use principles of copyright, for example. The tax exempt status of universities recognizes that they produce a different kind of property, particularly in the case of a land-grant institution like Virginia Tech. There is a social contract between society and the university.

Historically, the exchange of real property for another kind of property goes back to the monasteries. Noblemen (and women) gave land (symbolically, a chunk of turf was placed on an altar) so that they, through the monastery, could be closer to God and have a surer path to heaven (and for certainty’s sake, nobles were buried on monastery grounds– here Willinsky noted that Leland Stanford is buried on the grounds of Stanford University). But personal patronage of this kind was not lasting. So today we have democratically elected governments who, on behalf of the public, provide patronage for the advancement of humanity through land grants (the Morrill Act of 1862), tax support, and tax exemption. The knowledge produced in universities is public. The audience was deputized to spread the word.

Thanks to the University Libraries’ Event Capture Service for the video below. [Edit 2/28/14]

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.

Reading John Willinsky on Open Access (Part 1)

By now you know that this year’s Open Access Week at Virginia Tech features a keynote address by John Willinsky, one of the world’s best-known advocates for open access. In addition, in his role as Distinguished Innovator in Residence, he will be visiting many classes and groups on campus for informal conversations. In preparation for his visit, and also to offer a session for the Library Reading Group (this Wednesday at noon in the Boardroom), I’ve been reading (or re-reading) some of his articles on open access, as well as his 2006 book The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (more on that in Part 2).

John Willinsky (photo credit Peter Searle)

John Willinsky (photo credit Peter Searle)

His numerous writings on open access are only a part of his extensive publications list, as you can see from Stanford’s repository, his ORCID profile, and his Google Scholar profile. His articles on open access are impressively wide-ranging, addressing aspects such as ethics, economics, reputation, the developing world, the concept of intellectual property, and technical limitations in the online environment, among others. For our discussion Wednesday in the Reading Group, I’ve chosen The Unacknowledged Convergence of Open Source, Open Access, and Open Science from way back in 2005. Outlined below are a few of his other articles that I’ve read recently.

In The Academic Ethics of Open Access to Research and Scholarship (2011), he and Juan Pablo Alperin consider ethics from the perspective of positive action:

…in which, for example, one goes out of one’s way to help someone- rather than an arena of moral failings… We believe that with the coming of the digital era, the university faces an unprecedented ethical opportunity to act in a positive fashion by reaching out to help others.

Willinsky and Alperin suggest that the rapidly changing publication models prompted by online distribution may present a “limited-time opportunity for ethical action” in which authors could make the extra effort to ensure that research is disseminated widely. In the case of article archiving, authors have the opportunity to greatly reduce the time between completing a paper and making it available to readers.

In Open Access and Academic Reputation (2010) he identifies the paradox that journals remain “indispensable for institutional reputation-setting” while their importance in knowledge exchange is declining, at least in some disciplines, with attention directed to disciplinary repositories such as, for example. Open access journals are improving in reputation through such measures as the impact factor, and authors who publish openly or archive their work stand to benefit from increased readership and citations as well as build reputation more easily on a global scale. Greater access may improve the reputation of research as a whole, as already seen by the “evidence-based” and open data movements. We all need to remember that “the intellectual property at issue in this reputation economy is a sponsored public good.”

Willinsky addresses the problem of access to research in the developing world in his chapter Development and Open Access (PDF) (2013, chapter 26 of Critical Perspectives on International Education, pages 363-378). It’s a long litany of access nightmares that have become worse since the 1970s, caused by “subscription price increases, currency fluctuations, and local economic troubles.”

At the Agricultural Sciences University in Bangalore, which I visited in 2003, nearly half the journal subscriptions had been canceled during the preceding decade…

In addition to his own experiences, the chapter refers to the literature of global access problems, which are somewhat mitigated by efforts such as INASP and HINARI. Often overlooked is the ability of scholars in the developing world to get published, made more difficult because it is so hard to keep up with current literature. 

What this means is that scholars everywhere need to question their assumptions about what constitutes an adequate circulation of their and others’ work.

In addition to his advocacy for open access, Willinsky has worked to create open source software for open access journals. In 1998 he founded the Public Knowledge Project to do just that (the University Libraries uses PKP’s Open Journal Systems and Open Conference Systems software). PKP also created software for book publishing, and in his 2009 article Toward the Design of an Open Monograph Press, Willinsky described the software, the workflows it enables, and how it can help address the difficulties of publishing a scholarly monograph.

In a similar vein, he and two co-authors describe potential improvements to the most common article format in Refurbishing the Camelot of Scholarship: How to Improve the Digital Contribution of the PDF Research Article. Among the suggestions are improvements in legibility, linkable references, annotation, and metadata, with numerous opportunities for contribution by repositories.

Hopefully I’ve provided a decent overview of John Willinsky’s writings on open access, and perhaps it can serve as a source of conversation during his visit. In Part 2 I’ll discuss The Access Principle.

A Preview of Open Access Week

Open Access Week is coming up October 21-25, and Virginia Tech has a full schedule of events. This will be our second observance of the international event.

We are especially excited about the keynote address by John Willinsky, author of The Access Principle (2006) and director of the Public Knowledge Project, creator of open source software for scholarly publishing.

Other highlights are the faculty and graduate student panels (great discussions last year; this year’s participants still in the works) and our most recent addition, a panel on ETDs and open access, where the AHA controversy is sure to take center stage.

I’ll be posting more about the week as it approaches, but just wanted to get a quick notice out. I am co-chair of the event and one of the website editors, so please leave a comment or contact me directly if you have suggestions for the event or the information that we provide online. Hope to see you at as many events as possible!

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