Magic Dome of Learning

An argument for the right to freely shared knowledge

The typical argument for open access revolves around such dry statistics as journal costs, citation rates and author fees. But not when John Willinsky gets up to talk.9780262232425-f30

Standing before a packed roomful of OSU faculty in early December, the Stanford University professor and open-access activist gave an impassioned oratory on the roots of intellectual property rights, drawing on the writings of 17th-century English philosopher John Locke. Willinsky’s audience — which included several journal editors — sat rapt as he charged across a wide intellectual landscape, referencing everything from Othello to Google Scholar to best-selling author Margaret Atwood to Harvard’s open-access mandate. Dashes of NASA, Open Source software, the Human Genome Project — even National Institutes of Health data repositories on worms and flies — seasoned the presentation, sponsored jointly by OSU and University of Oregon libraries.

Knowledge associated with research and learning, in contrast to other kinds of intellectual property, belongs to the commons as a birthright, argued Willinsky, author of “The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship,” and founder of the Public Knowledge Project, a multi-university partnership dedicated to advancing scholarly communication. When knowledge is generated in public universities and supported by government grants, he said, it should be made freely available to everyone through the Internet. Taxpayers are, after all, footing the bill for the creation of that knowledge. When libraries have to pay for those articles again through journal subscriptions — and when people have to pay user fees for articles they have essentially already funded — the Lockean logic of humankind’s shared interest in the fruits of learning is undermined.

“The whole world of ideas is held in common,” said the professor, developer of Open Journal Systems, an open source (free) journal management and publishing system that expands and improves access to research. Scholarship and science that take place within the “magic dome of learning,” he said, are part of the public trust. To restrict access by publishing findings in expensive, for-profit journals hurts the public good, which benefits from the university’s contributions to learning and discovery. Indeed, the $7 billion currently spent on scholarly journal publishing today, he noted, is more than enough to cover publishing costs, leaving no reason that this work could then not be made freely available to the world, as its value doesn’t go up by excluding readers but only by having it widely circulate.

“The university is entrusted with learning,” he said. “As the producers of intellectual property sponsored by the state, universities are in a position to extend their contribution by making every effort to share their knowledge in the name of the public good.”

Willinsky, designer of the forthcoming Open Monograph Press for book-length publications, recently marshaled the public-good argument to persuade his colleagues in Stanford’s School of Education to adopt an open-access policy — the first school of education in the nation to take that step.

“Open access is a movement,” declared Willinsky, who also holds a faculty appointment in the University of British Columbia’s Department of Language and Literacy Education. “And I’m proud to be a card-carrying member.”

~ Lee Sherman

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