Making Open Access a Meaningful Reality

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Access to knowledge is a human right.  The value of knowledge, in all fields, is so great a public good that humanity has a responsibility to allow it to be widely accessible for the benefit of anyone who is interested in it, whether for intrinsic or practical purposes.  The digital age has opened up incredible opportunities to realize this right, yet we find that information access has been unduly stymied.  It’s time for knowledge workers and those who care to advocate and organize to remove current roadblocks and to set up new channels for information to flow more freely.  This is the crux of John Willinsky’s message in The Access Principle.  His very clear and thoughtful commentary covers a range of both technical and philosophical issues related to the open access of scholarly journals, in particular.  Wheels got going in my mind about how we not only make information open, but meaningfully open.

As a former human rights advocacy professional, student and aspiring educator, it was easy to agree with Willinsky’s central notions: (1) everyone has a “right to know,” (2) we ought to turn knowledge into a greater vehicle for public education and (3) scholarship is a public good.  I also found Willinsky’s pragmatic and reasonable approach to expanding our collective commitment to open access appealing.  He is pro-copyright, understanding that there ought to be a balance between individual and societal needs and rights.

Willinsky is (rightfully) critical of the publishing industry, though he acknowledges that it started on a noble track by providing needed new journal titles.  Sadly, it has fallen off that track and onto the mega-corporate capitalism track, focused on generating profits.  We must change the dynamic using digital media to our advantage and pushing publishers to honor the sharing of scholarship as a public good.

Willinsky recalls the 2002 hacking into JSTOR where over 50,000 articles were downloaded to prove that there is much “surplus capacity” in large companies and non-profits.  He argues that companies ought to consider ways to provide discounted or free access to institutions stuck by poverty in the digital divide from North American inner-city schools to research facilities in Kenya.  Not only would this be the right thing to do, but the companies would not lose anything.  He argues for a cooperative spirit from all sectors to make access more and more open.  Eventually transitioning from print operations to completely digital ones will save money and can bring lower costs to users, too.

Willinsky is enthusiastic about the Creative Commons project of Lessig and Boyle, which provides an alternative for scholars publishing their works.  It reorients licensing agreements to be truer to the historic intent of the copyright.  And beyond reforms and proactive actions existing mega-corporate publishers can make, he pushes for more online distribution efforts.  He gives his own startup (the Public Knowledge Project) as an example of what can be done with modest resources.

From my former career in human rights advocacy, I learned that important information sitting in cyberspace does not have power by itself.  I believe information’s power needs human help to be meaningful.  Organization, packaging and staffing are three keys.  Willinsky gives much attention to the issue of indexing information.  Sixteen years ago, when I was an undergraduate, I remember going to the school library to look up material for term papers.  It was a very different experience from typing in a search query today.  The number of “hits” that come up in an academic search program today are completely uselessly unwieldy unless one has a few clues from a given field to sharpen up a search.  I’m sure I miss many excellent articles due to the volume of available digital content all the time.

Connected to getting authors and publishers to carefully index work is the need for good packaging of materials.  Willinsky talks about using “Reading Tools” on his project’s webpages to help readers find relevant companion materials and to build context for the information they find.  As a future teacher, I know this will be very important to my high school students who need help “scaffolding” as they try to make sense of complex material.  Willinsky, a true scholar, also points to the need to approach knowledge not as a final product but as part of an untidy ongoing process of inquiry.  In the great debates around No Child Left Behind (Bush’s Education Act), “evidence-based” research is presented as the justification of certain approaches.  With several years under our belts with these policies we know there are weaknesses, such as the unproductive over-testing of students.  It’s not enough to say “research backs this idea, therefore it must be an absolutely correct policy.”  Education deals with complex factors.  Research is important, but knowledge is most powerful when presented as an dynamic invitation to further investigation.

Finally, I would highlight staffing in helping information access’ utility.  It is true that digital technology can help save money, time and energy with the mundane tasks of making information available.  There is still a role for human beings, though, in being on hand to help people navigate vast informational resources.  And in the case of Willinsky’s Canadian education policy website example, users were turned off when they didn’t get any sort of reply from the host of the site – the government.  His team did a great job posting information about education policies, linking to a variety of perspectives and providing a discussion forum for users.  However, users wanted to engage with policymakers, too.  Presenting knowledge as dynamic, providing context, skillfully indexing and providing connections to relevant people can enhance the meaningfulness of open information access.

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