Access Principle

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

Online version at


From the Institute for the Future of the Book at

"In his book John Willinsky, from the University of British Columbia, tackles the idea that scholarship needs to be more open and accessible than it currently is. He offers a comprehensive and persuasive argument that covers the ethical, political and economic reasons for making scholarship accessible to both scholars and the public. He lives by his words, as a full text version is now available for download on the MIT Press website. The book is an important resource for anyone who is concerned with scholarly communicate."

Willinsky provides in one place, a clear depiction of the status quo and the reasons on how it arrived there. He then takes the argument for open access deeper by widening the discussion to address the developing world and the general public.

Willinsky documents a promising trend that several large institutions including the NIH and prestigious journals such as the New England Journal of Medicine, are making their research available. They use different models releasing the research. For example, NEJM makes article accessible six months after its paid publication is released. In attempting to encourage this trend of open access to scholarly work, Willinsky devotes much of "Open Access" to document the business models of scholarly publishing and shows in detail the economic feasibility of open access publishing. He clearly maintains that making scholarship accessible is not necessarily making it free. Walking through the current economic models of academic publishing, Willinsky gives a good overview of the range of publishing models with varying degrees of accesibility. As well, he devotes an entire chapter which proposes an intriguing model of how a journal could be operated by scholars as a cooperative.

To coincide with this effort to argue for the open access of scholarship, Willinsky also works with a group of developers to create an open source and free publication platform, called the Open Journal System. The OJS provides a journal a way to reduce their costs by providing digital tools for editing, management and distribution. Although, it is clear that scholars and publishers still hold on to print as the ideal medium, even as it is becoming increasing economically infeasible to maintain. However, when the breaking point eventually comes to pass, the point in time when shrinking library budgets and raising subscription rates eventually become unworkable, viable options will fortunately already exist. A sample list of journals using OJS shows the breadth of subject matter and international use of the tool.

It is the last chapters of the book, "Reading," "Indexing" and "History" which leave the biggest impact. In "Reading," Willinsky explores how the way people read is already being influenced by screen-based text. Initially, the focus on digital publishing was relevant in his analysis and proposals, because the efficiencies gained by digital publishing can be used to balance the costs of accessing print publishing. However, in the shift to digital online publishing, he notes that there exists an opportunity to aid the comprehension of readers that is unrelated to the economics and ethics of access.

He uses the example of how students read a primary history text very differently than a historian reads. A historian quickly jumps from the top to bottom looking for clues concerning geography, time of the events depicted and the time document was written, in order to understand the historical context of the document. On the other hand, a student will typically read a document from start to finish, with less emphasis on building a context for the document.

Scholars' readings of journal articles have similarities to the way historians read their source documents. Just as there are techniques to assist student of history how to read, there also ways to assist the reading of all scholarly work. Most importantly, these techniques can be integrated into the reading environment of the open and online journal. Addressing and utilizing the potential of digital and networked text, in the end, can assist the overall arguments of Willinsky. Because Willinsky comes from an education and pedagogy background, it is not surprising that he uses an "scaffolding" approach to support learning and reading. In this context, scaffolding refers to the pedagogical idea that knowledge transfer is increased when readers (or learners) are given tools and resources to support their learning experience with the main text.

Currently, there are of course features in print journal publishing to aid the reader. He cites that abstracts, footnotes and citations are ubiquitous tools to aid the reader. In the online environment, these tools can be expanded even further. While Willinsky acknowledges that open access will change the readership of scholarly publishing and that the medium must adapt for these new readers, he does not mean to say that the level of writing itself necessarily has to change. Scholars should still write to expand their field.

One very basic feature that is included the Open Journal System is the ability to comment. This simple feature has the ability to narrow the gap between author and reader. Although as far as I can tell, it is not often used. Also included, "Reading Tools" are basic but significant additions to the reading experience, currently providing supportive information by searching open access databases with author-proscribed key words. Willinsky states these tools are still undergoing development, which is not surprising because our understanding of the digital networked text is still in the formative stage as well. Because OJS is open source, it allows new feature sets to be added into the system as new forms of reading are understood and can be applied onto a large scale. Radical experimentation is not always appropriate. Just getting the journals into an online environment is a significant achievement. It is telling that the default setting for "Reading Tools" is off, although it is being used by some journals.

The chapter "Indexing," flips the analysis to look at how online and accessibility will change how scholarship is stored, indexed and retrieved on the publisher side. Willinsky notes that in countries as Bangalore, universities cannot even afford the collected abstracts of journals, let alone subscriptions to the actual journal. However, the developing world is starting to benefit from the growing open indexes such as PubMed, ERIC, and CiteSeer.IST and HighWire.

He goes deeper into the issues of indexing by exploring how indexing of schloarly literature can be "more comprehensive, integrated and automated" while being open and accessible. Collaborative indexing is one such route to explore, which begins to blur the lines between publisher, author and reader. Willinsky has documented how fragmented current indexing service are, which leads to overlap and confusion over where journal are indexed. He aptly points out that indexing needs to evolve in step with open access because the amount of information to search vastly increases. Information that cannot located, even if it is openly accessible, has limited social value.

The Access Principle closes with a wonderful look at the historical relationship between scholarship and publishing in the aptly named chapter, "History." In the early ears of the printing press, scholars where often found at the presses themselves, working with printers to produce their work. Once the printing press matured, a disconnect between the scholar and the press developed. Intermediaries emerged who ordered their subscription preferences and texts were sent off publishers and editors, as scholars moved further away from the physical press. Today, the shift to the digital has allowed the scholar to redevelop a closer relationship with the entire process of publishing. Blogging, print on demand, wikis, online journals and tagging tools are a few examples of how scholars now interact with "not only fonts and layout, but to the economics of distribution and access."

It's important that the book closes here, because it illuminates how publishing technology has always been a distruptive force on the way knowledge is stored and shared. Willinsky's concern is to argue for open access but to also show how interrelated the digital is to that access. Further, there is the opportunity to "improve the quality and value of that access." (

More Information

  1. Listen to John Willinsky on The Access Principle
  2. Bio at