Book review: The Access Principle

the access principle

The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship
John Willinsky
MIT Press. 2006. 285 pp.

We live in an historic moment. Publishing is moving from print to digital formats, and the model of ‘open access’ publishing challenges traditional methods of commercial publishing and academic publishing as well.

In The Access Principle, John Willinsky argues that open access to research archives and journals has the potential to change the public presence of science and scholarship and to help inform civic discussion and policy making.

A professor at the University of British Columbia, Willinsky argues that a commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of research findings as far as possible, to all who are interested in it, and to all who might profit by it.

Willinsky’s case for open access is multifaceted. It draws on the spirit of copyright law, the mandate of scholarly associations, the promise of global knowledge exchanges, the public’s right to know, the prospect of enhanced reading and indexing, the improved economic efficiencies of publishing, and the history of the academic journal.

Willinsky is careful to explain that ‘open access’ does not mean ‘free access.’ Open access articles cannot be read without a substantial investment in hardware, software, and networking. The open access movement does not operate in denial of economic realities, he says; it is simply acting on a scholarly tradition that has long been concerned with extending the circulation of knowledge.

The Access Principle deals with practical matters of digitizing scholarly journals and then goes on to consider larger themes, including extending the research capacities of developing nations, increasing public rights of access to knowledge, and furthering the policy and political contributions of research.

The open access movement has drawn critics, who are alarmed at what this approach could mean for the future of scholarly publishing in general and for their pocketbooks in particular. But, Willinsky asks, what sort of market drives subscription prices and cancellations up to the point of forcing libraries to cancel journals? What sort of market ensures that the labor invested by faculty authors and reviewers results in journals that their own libraries can no longer afford?

Research knowledge has been transformed into a capitalized commodity and economic driver, he writes. The resulting corporate publishing concentration, with its relentless focus on knowledge capitalization and shareholder value, has allowed journal prices to increase well above inflation rates. University libraries cannot keep up, and even Tier 1 research institutions are dropping expensive journal subscriptions by the dozens and scores.

Online scholarly resources are now available in a variety of forms, yet it’s the research article in particular that’s at the center of a struggle, Willinsky says. The struggle is over online publishing and whether it will further contribute to, or whether it will begin to reverse, the current state of declining access to research within an otherwise expanding global academic community.

Journals that are not prepared to make their articles freely available to readers immediately on publication have a range of options for increasing access, Willinsky notes:

Journals can enable authors to deposit articles (in preprint and postprint stages) in an e-print archive run by the authors’ institutions or to post them on the authors’ own Web sites immediately on publication.

Journals can make their contents free to read online some six to twelve months after initial publication.

Journals can make their contents freely and immediately available to those working at universities in developing countries.

As an example of the difference open access can make, both to readers and to authors, Willinsky cites the journal Education Policy Analysis Archives, begun in 1993 by Arizona State University professor Gene Glass. The site attracts thousands of visitors each weekday. Compare that with the typical audience for a print academic journal where a circulation of 600 copies is common.

Submissions to the online Teachers College Record have gone up, since launching the open access site, from 75 submissions a year in 1995 to 600 submissions in 2002.

Open access is becoming part of the peculiar economics of scholarly publishing, Willinsky says. BioMed Central is part of that picture, as are the Health InterNetwork Access to Research Initiative and International Network for the Availability of Scientific Publications projects. Elsevier’s ScienceDirect provides an open index to that portion of the literature that it controls, and allows its authors to self-archive their work.

In this context, Willinsky argues, scholarly associations must ask themselves whether they will use this new publishing medium, already integral to the scholarly process, to extend and advance the circulation and exchange of knowledge. The associations need to consider the principles of access and the availability of open access publishing in the short term and the long term. They should consider cooperating with research libraries and better attune themselves to what’s in the best interest of their members and authors, as well as the cause of research and scholarship that they serve.


3 Responses to Book review: The Access Principle

  1. akamrt says:

    Interesting review. I recall one of profs in my masters program said that hording knowledge is the same thing as cheating. They suggested that students solidified their learning more effectively by being active in sharing knowledge and discovery.

    Scott McLeod adds some ideas to the ones presented in the book in an article in the November issue of Technology and Learning:


    The article, “The Importance of Being Clickable” presents a position that those at the higher ed level who don’t take advantage of potential of the Internet to disseminate their ideas will become obscure.

    McLeod lauds the power to network and share ideas that are in development as opposed to post publishing. He suggested some basic steps toward what he calls “clickability” . . .

    “Instead of merely listing their degrees, contact information, and courses, faculty could list their publications and their abstracts, post slides from their conference presentations, and upload copyright-protected drafts of working papers, all of which would give Internet search engines more information to index.”

    He goes on to detail even more opportunities for faculty and researchers to push themselves forward into the open and away from obscurity.

    – Greg

  2. paul says:

    cool link. thanks.
    i’d bet that this will happen more frequently as current grad students and recenty -minted PhDs move up the ranks.

  3. […] access and Web 2.0 tools I recently read an interesting review (at EducationPR) of the book, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship by John […]

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