Open for collaboration—John Willinsky on cooperation for open access (Open Access Week 2015)

For Open Access Week (October 19–25), SFU Library, UBC Library, BCcampus, and the Public Knowledge Project joined forces to host an evening of speakers and discussion about all things open. Ostensibly, the theme of the event was “Is it time for Canada to implement a unified open strategy for higher education?” but the speakers deviated from that theme quite a bit, which, in my opinion, ultimately made the evening more interesting. A summary of John Willinsky’s keynote is below. I’ll blog about the panel discussion in a separate post.

(An overly fastidious editor’s confession: I vacillated between uppercasing and lowercasing Open Access, feeling that open access as a concept is widespread enough that it doesn’t have to be capitalized. Just to be perfectly insufferable, I’ve retained the caps for the name of the movement. If you have strong feelings about this issue, I’d love to hear your thoughts.)


John Willinsky is a professor at the Stanford Graduate School of Education  and the director of the Public Knowledge Project, headquartered at SFU. Award-winning author of books such as Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED, and Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End, Willinsky has been a champion of the Open Access movement for about two decades. “Open Access started to take on the name in 2001,” said Willinsky, but the idea emerged in the 1990s with the growth of the internet. “There was the sense that, if there is an internet, there should be more access to knowledge,” said Willinsky. “Information should be free, and now we have the means to begin sharing it.”

Until recently, open access has applied largely to research articles, although now more books are being made open access. “Open access means it is available to anyone,” said Willinsky, and in the past decade “We’ve had a great achievement”: Jamali and Nabavi (2015) found that 61 percent of all research articles were freely available. (Ironically, Jamali and Nabavi’s paper is not open access.)

“I have to add a qualifier,” said Willinsky. “Eighty percent of those articles are illegally posted online.”

“Fortunately, there has been very little prosecution in this,” he added.

“The movement has taken hold. The White House has a policy on open access: research supported by all federal granting agencies has to be open access. The Tri-Council in Canada [NSERC, SSHRC, and CIHR] requires open access.”

Has open access had an impact on the public? “What happens when we start making these articles free? Will people care?” Willinsky cited research by Juan Pablo Alperin, who found that in Latin America, 20 to 25 percent of people who viewed peer-reviewed articles were not affiliated with universities, and Laura Moorhead, who gave doctors free access to research articles for one year and asked, “Would they be too busy to use these resources?” Moorhead found that, indeed, two-thirds of the doctors who signed up were too busy to look at research articles, but the remaining one-third consulted research to inform their practice, to confirm what they’ve known intuitively, and to resolve disagreements with their colleagues.

The next frontier, said Willinsky, is open data. Pharmaceutical giant Bayer, he told us, has committed to making its patient-level information available to researchers and registering all of its clinical trials. “In the past,” said Willinsky, “pharma did not tell people about trials. They used to be very proprietary about data, which made it difficult to create generic drugs.”

“We cannot take [open data] for granted the way articles are taken for granted,” said Willinsky. The international community has to come together to develop standards that will allow us to take advantage of this open data. Personalized medicine is based on the ability to share and compile and analyze genomic data, he said, but right now we have no standards for sharing it in an interoperable way.

The spirit of cooperation that open data calls for builds on the cooperation that has helped open access succeed. “We’re no longer talking about whether open access is good,” said Willinsky, “but the final kilometre will be the biggest challenge.” Worldwide, we spend $12 billion on journal subscriptions, a number that isn’t decreasing despite open access. “We need to rethink the idea of subscription as a way to exclude,” he said. Subscription, at its birth, was a way to support the creation of a work. In 1612, when the Accademia della Crusca found that it had no money to print the Vocabolario degli Accademici della Crusca, the first dictionary of Italian, it called on people to contribute to the cost of printing in exchange for an acknowledgement in the publication. Subscribers directly supported the publisher, and this model of subscription as micro-patronage was borrowed to print similar works.

Willinsky calls on multiple stakeholders—libraries, journals, professional associations, presses, and funders—to create cooperatives that function more like this original subscription model. Some of the $12 billion we spend for subscriptions can surely be reallocated to pay for open access.

We’re seeing the first signs of how these kinds of cooperatives might work. Érudit, for example, is a consortium of universities in Quebec that makes the 130 Canadian journals in its collection available to all of those institutions’ libraries. And the Canadian Research Knowledge Network cuts a single cheque to a publisher and makes that publisher’s journal available to all member libraries. “There’s no advantage to libraries to have that knowledge locked up,” said Willinsky. “Let’s have the same cheque for subscription journals to make all of them open access, available to all Canadians and everyone in the world.”

Professional societies can also pave the way for more access: the American Association of Anthropology, for example, receives $500,000 a year in revenue from subscriptions to twenty-two journals that only library users can see. The association publishes with Wiley-Blackwell but owns its content and could work with any other publisher, including one that would support opening up access of those journals to the public, in a way that wouldn’t cost the organization anything in revenue. “The idea that we have to lock up knowledge to create value doesn’t work with research. Research is a public good like health is a public good. The quality of the whole is lost,” said Willinsky, if we divide it and put part of it behind a paywall.

“We know we have enough resources,” he said. “We are not powerless in the face of that challenge… On the basis of cooperation, we will get access to the whole.”

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