Review of “The Access Principle”

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’.

Added July 10, 2008: Archived in WebCite®: versions of the reviews by Wioleta Fedeczko, T.D. Wilson and Scott Aaronson.

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  1. tillje said

    On 18 June 2007, I emailed some questions to Anne Marie Corrigan (Vice President, Journals, University of Toronto Press) about access policies for University of Toronto Quarterly (UTQ). Three of the questions, and her very informative responses to them, were:

    Q: My understanding is that individual articles in UTQ are accessible to individual readers only via subscribing libraries (or, via private correspondence with the author and a request for a single copy). Is this understanding correct?

    A: Yes, this is correct.

    Q: Many journals permit an author to self-archive a copy of her/his article in a personal or institutional repository. If UTQ has a policy about self-archiving, can you provide a copy of the policy?

    A: We don’t have a policy as such but we tend to deny institutional repository requests. Of course, an author can self archive the article before it goes through the editing and layout process. In the case of a book review this might be very similar to the final published review.

    Q: I’m especially interested in the duration of any embargo period after publication (in relation to open access to self-archived copyies of articles published in UTQ). If UTQ has a policy about embargo periods, what is it?

    A: We don’t have an embargo period since we don’t allow self archiving.

    In my email response to her answers, on 26 June 2007, I wrote, in part:

    Thank you for your response to my questions.

    You commented that: “Of course, an author can self archive the article before it goes through the editing and layout process”.

    I’d propose to do this with the final submitted version of my review. I’ve attached an Author’s Addendum which I intend to add to the author contract for UTQ. It includes two terms:

    1. Personal Website. The Author shall retain the right to post the Author’s final submitted version of the Article on the Author’s personal website or blog.

    2. For record keeping purposes, Author requests that Publisher sign a copy of this Addendum and return it to Author. However, if Publisher publishes the Article in the journal or in any other form without signing a copy of this Addendum, such publication manifests Publisher’s assent to the terms of this Addendum.

    On 26 June 2007, Anne Marie Corrigan acknowledged receipt of my message, and noted that she will will send this information to the copyeditor who will be taking care of the contracts.

    A version of the Author’s Addendum that I forwarded to Anne Marie Corrigan has been self-archived. It’s in Word format, and includes some relevant references about the sources of the paragraphs that are included in the Addendum. See my comment posted 6 July 2007, and the (extremely basic) Author’s Addendum.

    My thanks to Anne Marie Corrigan for providing answers to my questions.

  2. heathermorrison said

    Kudos for asking about the Author’s Addendum, and for reporting the results, Jim. This is indeed a small step forward, and the University of Toronto Quarterly is to be congratulated for taking this tiny step, and for having the courage to report on this in public.

    However, it is in the interests of authors (and ultimately, of journals), to insist on full rights, not just rights to post to a personal website or blog, and this review might provide a good illustration of why.

    As you point out, Jim, there are a number of reviews of The Access Principle, and this award-winning book is likely to attract more. A researcher aiming at comprehensiveness will include a citation to the journal (and/or to the blog entry), while a researcher aiming to find some reviews will likely pick up the reviews that are easiest to find. I don’t know the subscription pattern for University of Toronto Quarterly, but would guess that outside of Canadian libraries and a few larger libraries elsewhere, subscriptions are few and far between. A copy of the review in an institutional or disciplinary repository would be more likely to be found that one in a personal website or blog; also, the IR or disciplinary repository tells more about the author (e.g., it says something that an author has the right to post in a particular IR).

    My prediction, then, would be that if the review was posted in an IR / disciplinary repository, it would attract more citations than posting to a personal website or blog. This works to the advantage of the author, the journal, and the University of Toronto.

    Open access provides the means to excel in the dissemination of scholarly research.
    Restricting access is a great recipe for obscurity; the very point you are making with this blog, Jim!

  3. tillje said

    Heather, you’ve predicted “that if the review was posted in an IR / disciplinary repository, it would attract more citations than posting to a personal website or blog“. An approach that I’ve suggested previously (08 Aug 2005) is to self-archive, in an appropriate IR, a “shadow file” that contains a citation for the published version and a link to the self-archived version of the complete article, but not the full text of the article. If the self-archived version has already been saved for posterity in the Internet Archive, then a link to that version can be the one that’s incorporated into the “shadow file”. I’ve used this latter approach only once so far, to test its feasibility. See: Open access to a document in the Internet Archive (03 Jun 2005).

    To date, it appears that only one of my blog posts is already in the Internet Archive (as of 08 Mar 2007): Scenarios about paying for OA (originally posted on 02 Mar 2007).

  4. tillje said

    The citation for the published version of my review (copyright © 2008 University of Toronto Press Incorporated) is:

    James E. Till, The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (review). University of Toronto Quarterly – Volume 77, Number 1, Winter 2008, pp. 135-137.

    Access to the published version is restricted: “This article is available through Project MUSE, an electronic journals collection made available to subscribing libraries.” [Link through Project MUSE].

    How Do I Get This Article? “Note: Project MUSE articles are accessible to subscribing libraries or to members of a society associated with a particular journal.”

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