[ECAR 2006] John Willinsky – Sustaining Access to Knowledge and Scholarly Publishing

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John Willinsky is Professor in the Department of Language and Literacy at the University of British Columbia.

The state of scholarly publishing and access to knowledge is his topic. The IT professional in universities has a new role that they need to act on. We need to move beyond something like sustainability – as a guitarist he notes that you have to work your fingers to keep the sustain, not just wait. Sustainability is just the status quo – but we know in our hearts that’s not what this is about – we need to be very conscious of the values we want to sustain. And in access to knowledge the status quo is not working – we have degradation in that access.

Sustainability speaks to a business model – which in his business as an academic is the evil twin – what would Socrates have said when asked for a business model?

We need to identify those values that are at the core of what we do and sustain those, but we need to expand and extend what we do, not just sustain.

The good news is that this is a world of the knowledge economy – that is our ship coming in. That should have put the university at the very center of that economy – and anything that interferes with the university’s production and aggregation of knowledge is a threat to that economy – but that didn’t happen.

Google has changed the equation in terms of access to knowledge. Google has offered to digitize all back issues of journals, with the journals maintaining the copyright ownership and only showing ads when the journals ok it, and sharing the revenues with the journals when they do. Only one journal in Canada has taken them up on the offer.

The situation is one of corporate concentration. John Wiley just offered to purchase Blackwell. This creates a publishing house of 1200 journals. Reed-Elsevier, 2000 journals, etc. 6000 titles owned by four corporate entities. Libraries are having to buy in bundles of titles, having to sign non-disclosure agreements on the pricing. Only very few of those bundles allow you to cancel single titles.

The effect is on academic freedom – the ability to start, subscribe to, and stop new journals is at the heart of academic freedom. If we sustain a situation where it’s difficult to start a new journal, we are interfering with academic freedom.

Fifteen percent of libraries are now canceling print editions and maintaining access to electronic versions. Publishers are either giving no reduction or less than 10 percent reduction in price for giving up print.

What does it mean when a journal goes corporate? 45% of journal titles are in corporate hands. When an association’s journals go corporate, the price goes up. The scholarly societies don’t see a choice – they need support for the electronic distribution of knowledge, and the publishers have very sophisticated mechanisms for that. Ted Bergstrom at UCSB has done work on comparing prices for non-profit vs. commercial journals. He has measured price per citation – in non-profit sector it’s $15, in commercial it’s $90. The commercialization is increasing cost, and unless budgets are rising that means a reduction in the access to knowledge. But this is in an era where the cost to disseminate knowledge is decreasing.

The alternative is the metaphor of openness. The metaphor is important because information technology can be used to restrict access as well as to increase dissemination. The principle is to increase access – anything that increases access to knowledge adds to the public good. The possibility of open data is exciting and a great example. In the humanities, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy is open – struggling, but open.

Another aspect is the role of the amateur. In astronomy, if we’re going to be hit by an asteroid, we won’t be informed by a professional astronomer. The amateur astronomers are using the data available and are being included in a very substantive way in the field. The idea is that the university is part of a larger community. We reposition the university as a source of knowledge – we are dependent on the good will of the community and we can give back.

The wikipedia is like one long homework project that everyone is doing for no credit. How is it that people can come together to create this? We in universities need to participate in this. How do we connect the work we’re doing in universities with things like the wikipedia? Through open access.

Publishers agree that authors have the right to put articles in institutional repositories or faculty web sites. Repositories are the first step – but how do we get people to fill them? Most faculty think publication is the end of the process. But it’s to the advantage of the faculty, department, and institution to have the article in the repository – it will increase your citation rate. There are figures that suggest a 40% increase in readership from appearing in open access repositories.

Authors can buy open access to an article from the publisher for around $3,000. The Federal Research Public Access Act of 2006 will make it a mandate for every major agency to make articles available for free six months after publication. Organizations are mobilizing to support this.

The Public Knowledge Project started about eight years ago. What can IT professionals do to help scholarly societies? They built some open source software – an open journal system, an open conference system, and an open metadata harvester. The open journal system allows a group of scholars to manage and publish an online journal – imagines a library can set up a system to allow scholars to publish. These systems make the data available on the web in a form that is indexable and makes it findable by Google and others.

The library and the institution can offer scholars the opportunity to provide an alternative to commercial publication.

The major scholarly societies are running very sophisticated journal operations. He wants to suggest a publishing cooperative, of societies, libraries, and IT professionals. Bring in the libraries to apply knowledge and funding that could be saved from subscriptions. 600 scholarly societies use Blackwell to publish their journals – the scholarly societies have a release clause in the case of a sale – so what alternative do they have? The IT departments could help suggest the alternative.

Instead of sustaining the future, we want to envision a better future. We should be willing to create futures that increase access to knowledge.

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