On The Access Principle, by John Willinsky

On The Access Principle, by John Willinsky

In The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (2006), Dr. John Willinsky lays out an expansive argument for open access to scholarly research, based on a steadfast belief, articulated from the outset, that open access has the potential to change the public presence of science and scholarship, and increase the circulation of these particular forms of knowledge (xi). Willinsky concludes that knowledge is, inherently, a public good (like lighthouses [9]), and as such the public should have unequivocal access to it. He structures the chapters of his book around keywords (e.g., “Economics,” “Copyright,” “Politics”), and explores the implications of broad open access for each term.

The backdrop of Willinsky’s book is the shifting context and format of scholarly communication. He does not shy away from waving red flags like the increasing cost of journal subscription for academic libraries or the dominance of corporate publishers on the scene. Willinsky also reminds his readers of the significant knowledge gap that global, economic forces have shaped in developing nations (with an especial focus on academic institutions in India and Africa). Adding to the potential controversy, Willinsky suggests that the slow uptake of open access is due to researchers’ vanity or indifference: in the former case, researchers are too wedded to ideas of prestige to publish their work in OA journals; in the latter, researchers are unconcerned with exploring new venues for their work. This is especially frustrating as OA journals have been proven to increase the overall research impact of a scholarly publication, as Canada Research Chair on the Transformations of Scholarly Communication Dr. Vincent Lariviere and his co-authors demonstrate in their study, “Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Impact for Higher Quality Research” (2010) (itself an article with over 41,000 recorded views, FYI). Above all, Willinsky posits open access as a more just and fair choice for scholarly knowledge production, citing its place “in a tradition bent on increasing the democratic circulation of knowledge” (30), and its role in facilitating shared decision-making between experts and non-experts (114).

One of my favourite arguments from The Access Principle is Willinsky’s suggestion that digital technologies are re-acquainting researchers and authors to the means and modes of their production. As Willinsky writes, much more elegantly than I have, “Online publishing technologies are drawing women and men of knowledge back to the (digital) typeface” (191). The establishment of digital humanities as a field, the many undergraduate and graduate student, faculty, or librarian-run journals, and the development of more creative publishing tools and platforms all bode well for a future academic publishing system with interests shifted from prestige and profit for the few to access and relevance for the many.

On a more disappointing note, The Access Principle was published in 2006, and in 2016 we still have not experienced the  OA publishing takeover. On the lack of broad uptake, despite feasibility, Willinsky writes: “were the spirit willing, the technology is ready” (118). This couldn’t be more true 10 years later, as we now work and live in an unprecedented age of technological literacy, nevermind accessible self-publishing platforms, institutional repositories, and WYSIWYG content management systems. It has never been easier for many people to make their ideas widely known. Nevertheless, we remain far away from an ideal vision of knowledge sharing, despite the widespread (although, of course, not universal) access to the Internet, and the robust data harvesting and information management systems that have been developed.

My sense (hope?) is that attitudes toward open access are changing, and that corporate academic publishers are considering what other services they might offer researchers in the face of the growing open access movement. Yet, on my more cynical days it feels as though all that’s changed in the 10 years since the publication of The Access Principle is some vocabulary, and the increase of pay-to-play systems (like Article Processing Charges, or APCs) that, to my mind, are antithetical to the underlying values of open access — that is, a system of knowledge production that facilitates the straightforward, public sharing of quality research output.

Works Cited

Gargouri, Yassine, Chawki Hajjem, Vincent Larivière, Yves Gingras, Les Carr, Tim Brody, and Stevan Harnad. 2010. “Self-Selected or Mandated, Open Access Increases Citation Impact for Higher Quality Research.” PLOS ONE.

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


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