'The Access Principle'

Paying for information? In print? That's a model that's just so early 20th century, according to The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, published last week by MIT Press.

December 20, 2005

Paying for information? In print? That's a model that's just so early 20th century, according to The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship, published last week by MIT Press.

The book reviews the various models to bring the dissemination of knowledge online and to make it free, and along the way, the book criticizes plenty of publishing practices, copyright interpretations and scholarly traditions. John Willinsky, professor of language and literacy education at the University of British Columbia, has devoted much of his scholarship to the ideas behind the book. Among other things, he directs the Public Knowledge Project, which is financed by the Canadian government to promote the free exchange of information. Willinsky responded to questions about the themes of his book.

Q: Can you define "the access principle"?

A: The access principle holds that with a form of knowledge that is constituted as a public good, which is the case with research and scholarship, the knowledge should be circulated as widely and publicly as possible, especially as that wider circulation increases the value and quality of that knowledge. The Internet, as a new publishing medium, is proving itself capable of a considerable increase in access and circulation over print, and we are thus compelled to explore how this medium can contribute all that it can to this principle.

Q: Many publishers argue that journals and materials for which one must pay are somehow by definition of higher quality than various open models. How do you respond?

A: The empirical evidence argues otherwise: For example, the Public Library of Science (PLoS) Biology, a relatively new open access journal that operates on author fees, has the highest “impact factor” (number of times articles are cited) by a considerable margin among biology journals indexed by the ISI Web of Science. But that is only part of the quality story. The majority of journals now allow their authors to “self archive” their published articles in open access institutional repositories (usually located in the author’s university library). But note that in all cases, someone pays, though it is not necessarily the reader, and these alternatives are greatly increasing access to this knowledge.

Q: What economic models could allow those who publish journals to embrace the access principle? How can costs be covered?

A: First, there are now open access approaches that call for no change to the current financial models that most journals follow: There are journals, as I noted, whose policies permit authors to self-archive the final version in their library or on their Web site, while other journals grant open access six months or more after the initial publication of their otherwise subscription-controlled content. Then, too, there are new economic models for open access publishing based on the reduced costs afforded by online systems, which is where my Public Knowledge Project comes in, with its open source software (Open Journal Systems) for managing and publishing journals that significantly reduces costs. As societies and publishers move to online editions, and away from print -- in the face of libraries canceling print editions when they have a choice -- the reduced publishing costs can enable forms of open access, through author fees, society subsidies and institutional support. I would add that there can be no sense of fixed costs that need to be met in scholarly publishing as long as journal subscription prices range, as they currently do, from hundreds of dollars to, in at least one case, over $20,000.

Q: To what extent do open models of information relate not only to price, but to speed of information distribution? How does this relate to your goals?

A: Online publishing is certainly speeding up the process, as well as increasing how widely materials circulate. The increasing availability of working papers, as well as “preprints,” in a number of fields, along with greater openness among researchers to sharing data, are fostering a renewed sense of the long-standing tradition of “open science” only at much accelerated access speeds.

Q: An open access principle also means that members of the public who might never pay for a journal can read an article when they want. Would this change the nature of scholarship?

A: I would hope so. The increased public presence can add to scholarship in a number of ways. Among the examples, there are amateur astronomers who are able, now that they have access to the literature and data sets, to make positive contributions to the discipline through their field work. Or take the other side of this question, and how the increasing public presence of health research has led to what the Pew Internet & American Life Project has called an “online health care revolution,” as patients engage in what some doctors refer to “shared decision making.” I don’t see this public presence leading to a dilution of research goals or quality. Rather, it could well foster greater public support and a sense of this work’s value as a public good.

Q: In academe, the quest for tenure is a huge motivating factor for young faculty members. Do you think the biases of the tenure system (in favor of more established journals, for example) hinder the spread of the access principle?

A: Because even major commercial publishers, such as Elsevier and Springer, as well as the leading societies, permit authors to self-archive -- and as Oxford, PLoS, and others offer open access journals -- faculty members can chase the prestige titles and still contribute to the access principle. In fact, studies now show that who do self-archive achieve a 25-250 percent increase in the number of citations to their work, depending on the field. The higher citation rate following on open access is certainly a boon for anyone making the case for tenure and promotion.

Q: How do you think scholarly publishing will be different five years from now?

A: The scholarly publishing of journals will move increasingly online, with print editions eventually disappearing, and, and thanks to the efforts of open access advocates, this move will lead to a far greater proportion of the literature available through some form of open access, in what can only be called a mixed knowledge economy. The resulting increase in global and public access may well prove to be the best thing  that has happened to research and scholarship in some time.

Q: In light of the themes of your book, are you taking steps to make it available online and free?

A: An obvious and fair question, and I did take steps before the book was published. The majority of the chapters in the book initially appeared in open access journals or, if the journals were not open access, then they have been self-archived, with all of these articles continuing to be made available at the Public Knowledge Project, along with a good deal of other pieces on this work by myself and others associated with this project. While my focus in The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship is on increasing access to journal articles -- given how well journals have taken to Internet -- the access principle undoubtedly speaks to the book as well, and the fact that this book is not yet available for download as while does leave a comforting point for critics to pull me over and cite me for a violation.


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