An invited review of The Access Principle, by John Willinsky (MIT Press, 2006) was submitted on 13 July 2007 for publication (after copyediting) in the University of Toronto Quarterly 77:1 ( Winter 2007/2008 ) — “Letters in Canada 2006.” Publisher: The University of Toronto Press. This version (but not the submitted version) includes links to relevant URLs. I’m the author of the review. (Credit line: James E. Till, Project Open Source|Open Access, University of Toronto).
From the viewpoint of a researcher with a background in the biomedical and health sciences, John Willinsky’s book can be regarded as an experimental intervention designed to stimulate changes in the current system of scholarly publishing.
Willinsky’s book can also be classified as a policy-oriented intervention. Its goal (as stated on page 31) is ‘incremental advances in the circulation of knowledge within the academic community and beyond’. The access principle that underlies the book is the belief (as defined on page 5) that a ‘commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of this work as far as possible, and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit by it’. Routes to the provision of free access to research articles are described, such as open access repositories and open access journals. However, the emphasis is on opening access, that is, on ways to increase access to the outputs of scholarship and research, rather than on any particular inflexible definition of open access.
Experimental interventions need to be evaluated. How to begin to evaluate the impact of such a book? One simple way is to see what other reviewers have already said about it. A Google search quickly revealed a blurb from the website of MIT Press, the publisher of the book. Via this site, one can obtain free access to an electronic version of the book.
The search also yielded links to several reviews. One chapter-by-chapter review, by Wioleta Fedeczko, included a comment that the book ‘provides a rich analysis of the ecologies of publication’. Another review, by Professor T.D. Wilson, found it an ‘important book’ and ‘extremely well written’. A third review by Scott Aaronson, while critical of the writing style, included a comment that the book has ‘given the open-access movement its first attempt at an intellectual foundation’.
Another search, of Peter Suber’s excellent Open Access News blog, yielded links to several more reviews. Of the first ten freely accessible reviews, only one, by Martin Frank in the New England Journal of Medicine, was clearly negative. However, his criticisms were mainly of the open access movement, not the book. These searches also yielded information about two awards won by the book, the 2006 Blackwell’s Scholarship Award and the 2005 Computers and Composition Distinguished Book Award. One can conclude that most evaluations of the book have been quite positive.
The references cited in the book are dated 2005 or earlier. So, subsequent contributions to the rapidly-evolving open access movement are missing. This doesn’t mean that the book will soon be badly out of date. It will continue to provide valuable background material about the intellectual foundations for the movement.
There’s another experimental intervention that’s been fostered by John Willinsky and is described in the book. It’s the Open Journal Systems (OJS), open source software for journal management and publishing that is having substantial ongoing impact. As of March 2007, over 900 titles were using OJS, in ten languages. One recent example is a new open access Canadian general medical journal, Open Medicine. It seems likely that the OJS may have much greater impact on scholarly publishing over the longer term than will Willinsky’s book.
Lastly, a brief comment about how this review is also, in a very minor way, an intervention in the current system of scholarly publishing. An invitation to prepare a review of Willinsky’s book posed a dilemma. The book is about fostering greater access to the scholarly literature, yet the University of Toronto Quarterly isn’t an open access journal. The publisher, University of Toronto Press, accepted an Author’s Addendum that permitted retention of the right to post the author’s final submitted version of the review on the author’s personal website or blog. It’s a modest contribution to the open access movement, but one that’s compatible with John Willinsky’s goal of ‘incremental advances in the circulation of knowledge’.