Saturday, April 13, 2013

Willinsky: Digital Print and "Open Access" Chapter Summary

by Ambar Meneses

In his opening chapter titled “Opening” to his book The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (2005) John Willinsky discusses “the open access movement” in scientific publishing during the early 2000s and the present. “Open Access” here refers mostly to “digital” open access which Willinsky situates as the latest attempt in human history to make knowledge more publicly accessible by making it free. (By the way, Willinsky's book is available for free online via the MIT Press, here is the link to the book PDF:
The open access movement coincides with the painful transition of the scholarly publishing industry from print journals to mostly digital distribution and the attendant change from a print profit model to a digital profit model. Willinsky gives us some examples of online open access experiments conducted by various scholarly publishers, such as PLoS Biology, the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Elsevier, Springer Vetlag, and the New England Journal of Medicine. In this chapter Willinsky also discusses the conflict between the democratic ideal of open access to scholarly knowledge “free for all” and the scholarly publishing industry’s “profit” model, as well as the relationship between open access, public education, and the public good.
Willinsky sees the open access movement as the latest chapter in a history of similar knowledge sharing movements inspired by technological innovation. Willinsky likens the concept of open access, which includes the idea that knowledge should be easily available and free of charge, to the possibilities for knowledge sharing created by the great libraries of the past, such as the famous libraries at Alexandria in the third century B.C., and the great sixteenth century mosque libraries, such as al-Azhar in Cairo, Egypt. Far more similar to the current open access movement was the public sharing of scientific knowledge enabled by the printing press in the seventeenth century. According to Willinsky the printing press fueled the scientific revolution when printers such as “Henry Oldenburg decided to print segments of the scientific correspondence that he was handling for the Royal Society of London” (5). According to Willinsky the principle underlying open access entails “A commitment to the value and quality of research [that] carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of this work as far as possible, and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it” (Willinsky 5).
Part of the argument that Willinsky goes on to make in this book is that the very infrastructure of information sharing created by the Internet has led to different possibilities imperatives and expectations among scholars, students had the public of greater and less restricted access to scholarly and scientific knowledge. More recently scholarly publishers, such as PLoS Biology, Elsevier journals and Springer Verlag, have joined in on efforts to create free and public open access to scholarly and scientific knowledge by making some of their digital journals or articles free of charge to the public on the condition that either the authors pay a fee of between $1,500 and $3,000, by allowing authors to freely publish their own versions, or by making the journal articles freely available after a 6 or 12 month period intended to safeguard the profits they might make from initial, subscription-only publication. Meanwhile in the public sector, in 2005 the NIH “requested” that authors of taxpayer-funded research should make this research available to the public no later than 12 months after initial publication.
This created debate among scholars, political scientists, open access supporters and publishing industry supporters who disagreed about whether the government should mandate open access or whether the scholarly publishing industry should decide if, how and when to make their articles free to the public. Opponents of open access included Michael Keller, a Stanford University librarian and publisher of High Wire Press, and Rudy M. Baum, The editor of Chemical and Engineering News. Keller opposed government interference while Baum considered open access a threat the minute profits of the scholarly publishing industry and argued that “excellence rarely comes without a price.” Willinsky opposes Baum’s reasoning, arguing that authors are not paid royalties by journals for their articles and that they profit from publication in indirect ways that could only be enhanced though open access to other scientists and the public. Willinsky argues that scholarly authors derive indirect profits from the circulation that comes along with publication, such as increased scholarly prestige and the resulting prospect of a tenure-track position and increased salary.
Willinsky’s observations lead readers to conclude that this profit model or profit cycle for the author would be enhanced by more free and open access, which would allow more scientists to know of an author’s work more quickly so that the author’s reputation and prestige would increase more rapidly and his prospects for career advancement would arrive sooner (6-7). Willinsky notes that it is the circulation of scientific discoveries that enable them to become established as “knowledge.” For Willinsky the open access publishing model is ultimately not just about knowledge sharing among scholars and monetary profits, but about “turning this knowledge into a greater vehicle for public education, in the broadest sense” (9) which leads to the public good. In this sense public education means that anyone with an interest in the knowledge, from a patient trying to find out information about an ailment that affects them, to “historians and philosophers, editors, consultants, students and educators, journalists, consumer advocacy groups, government regulators and policy makers, and members of the legal community, as well as . . . 'the general reader'” would continue to benefit from the knowledge “without diminishing returns” to the authors or readers according to Willinsky’s “circulation and prestige” digital profit model for “the knowledge industry.”

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