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The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship

reviewed by Gene Glass & Sherman Dorn - 2006

coverTitle: The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship
Author(s): John Willinsky
Publisher: MIT Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0262232421, Pages: 287, Year: 2006
Search for book at Amazon.com

We shouldn’t be surprised from his oeuvre that John Willinsky’s latest book is about expanding access to knowledge. As the Pacific Press Professor of Literacy and Technology at the University of British Columbia, his scholarship initially focused on historical and socio-cultural aspects of literacy and curriculum. The trail of his scholarly contributions wends an impressive path through Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED (1994), to Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire's end (1998)an AERA "best book" award winner—to If Only We Knew: Increasing the Public Value of Social Science Research (2000), to the present offering.   It is no great act of perspicacity to discern the thread in Willinsky's ten books and dozens of articles: How is knowledge sanctified, how is knowledge turned into a commodity, and how is knowledge distributed? The Access Principle is the logical extension of this path, though one hopes not its termination. Already honored with the Blackwell Scholarship Award (presented to the "author of the outstanding monograph . . . in the field of acquisitions, collection development, and related areas"), The Access Principle is a brilliant book, meticulously researched, and richly documented. The timing could not be better, for online journal publishing continues to expand. The mail for January 24, 2006, brought the announcement of the creation of still another open access "online" journal of education scholarship. Counting this most recent addition, the list of peer-reviewed, open access scholarly journals in education numbers 93, representing over a dozen nations (see the list of links maintained by the AERA SIG on Communication of Research at http://aera-cr.asu.edu/ejournals/). Willinsky himself has supported this expansion with the Public Knowledge Project at the University of British Columbia (http://www.pkp.ubc.ca/), whose “proof of concept” Open Journal Systems is a working support structure that dozens of online journals use in some capacity.  A revolution is underway, and Willinsky is just the person to analyze it.

The Access Principle comprises 13 chapters succinctly entitled Opening, Access, Copyright, Associations, Economics, Cooperative, Development, Public, Politics, Rights, Reading, Indexing, History; six appendixes, a bibliography, and index complete the text. As the chapter titles suggest, Willinsky has taken on the topic of scholarly communications in the broadest possible terms. The access principle as Willinsky puts it is that "[a] commitment to the value and quality of research carries with it a responsibility to extend the circulation of such work as far as possible and ideally to all who are interested in it and all who might profit from it" (p. xii). Pushed to its limits, the access principle encounters the sticky cases of proprietary research, as in the pharmaceutical or weapons industries, where the desire to attain widest possible dissemination clearly must be qualified. But restricted to the narrower domain of social science and education scholarship, the principle embodies an aspiration to be fostered and a goal to be vigorously pursued. Indeed, Willinsky goes so far as to suggest that "the excessive increase in journal prices over the last two decades is a human-rights issue" (p. 143). Drawing on the work of political scientist Richard Pierre Claude and philosopher Jacques Derrida, Willinsky concludes that "[t]he right to know that is inherent in the access principle has a claim on our humanity that stands with other basic rights, whether to life, liberty, justice, or respect" (p. 143).  

Willinsky is at his most forceful when writing of the responsibility of universities to provide access to knowledge: "Universities may now be at risk, as Derrida warns, of 'becoming a branch office of conglomerates and corporations'. . . . Yet the knowledge that the universities produce already stands, in too many cases, as corporate assets for Blackwell, Springer, and Elsevier. . . If the rightly celebrated independence of the university has a higher purpose, it surely includes creating knowledge that will stand as a beacon for the right to know, as well as for knowledge that is useful in the struggle for human rights. The open access movement has done no more than demonstrate how the right to know can be more fully realized by more people, if scholars and researchers seize hold of current opportunities" (pp. 153–154).

To that end, Willinsky advocates the expansion of access to research knowledge. He does not particularly care how incremental that expansion is—he identifies ten "flavors," as he calls them, of open access to journal articles, from scholars’ home pages to institutional collaboration subsidizing repositories of manuscripts and journals. What is important to him is that there be expanding access to knowledge and the maintenance of scholarship and knowledge as public goods. He painstakingly describes the circumstances of scholars in various countries, whose institutions cannot provide access to professional journals, and then offers as a model the relatively new arrangements in some cases that corporate journal companies have provided for international-scholar access to a package of journals. He rightfully points to these arrangements as part of the innovations in access. Willinsky gains a wider audience by casting his gaze over such a broad field; even greedy commercial publishers will claim membership in one of Willinsky's gallery of "open access" models. He has cast a very wide net indeed over the whole domain of scholarly communications; that is his style and his gift.

And yet we are concerned that in his catholic approach to expanding access, Willinsky may have diluted his message without winning converts from the protectors and operators of proprietary knowledge. In a response to a feature of Willinsky in Inside Higher Ed, the Purdue University Press Director Thomas Bacher argued that publishers must cover costs, evidently ignoring Willinsky’s “ten flavors” of access (Bacher, 2006). We hope that Bacher and his peers pay closer attention to Willinsky’s nuances. But in covering the entire field as equally worthy of merit, Willinsky has muted the message of The Access Principle. To put it mildly, we are partisans of open access to scholarly writings. As the former and current editors of Education Policy Analysis Archives, we have operated one of the more radical models—no-subscription-fee, no-author-fee open-access journals. In reality, our greatest need as editors has been time, and the most important market is not in the cash market but in the reputational market. Many scholarly editors would probably agree; operating an open-access journal simply makes this reality transparent to us.

The modern entrepreneurial university shows its true colors in its failure to grasp the opportunity that communications technology and open access present. California Institute of Technology faculty signed a pledge a few years ago to refuse to cede copyright to commercial journal publishers. Their actions have not exactly started a stampede. University administrators, once apprised of the visibility that a free-to-read online journal can attain, are known to ask about the possibility of charging for access. And not just universities but professional and scholarly organizations themselves often put financial interests above the mission of dissemination of knowledge. This might be understandable, but it becomes mysterious when these organizations make no attempt to take advantage of the technologies that minimize costs. Consider the International Reading Association, which made a promising start—called Reading Online (http://www.readingonline.org)—in 1997 in the area of open access to reading research only to scuttle the effort in 2005 when they saw that it was not generating income for the organization. In fact, the costs they report for putting out fewer than 100 original articles plus a several reprints and book reviews were over a half million dollars. A board member of the IRA whom we contacted reported that Reading Online "was a very costly operation" and that "[w]hen we suspended operations we heard mainly from non-members and only a few of those, who mostly indicated that they thought we should continue to publish, but whom did not want to pay for the service. . . .”

Or closer to home, consider Teachers College Record, which offers stratified access to its materials. It maintains a hard-copy subscription option ($621/year for libraries) and a lower-cost electronic subscription ($15/year for individual subscribers). In addition, there is limited free access to some materials and more complete access after a certain time window of exclusive subscriber access (currently 18 months) (Natriello, 2005). The rationale for this stratified system is what Gary Natriello calls the “third way” of expanding access. It certainly has increased access, exposure, and the pool of manuscripts for the Record. And the windowed subscription, with later free access, is a potential solution that we hope is a permanent arrangement.

But absent access in a reasonable period, we remain concerned about the assumption that low cost creates universal access. At the heart of the access principle, we believe, is one troubling and controversial issue: whether scholarship is free to read. Cost―any cost―must be at the core of any consideration of the dissemination of knowledge. The demand for new knowledge is greatly elastic: Increase the cost a smidgen and the demand drops precipitously. One does not know the true value of that which one does not know. Just as in the early days of metered access to the internet—those days still exist in many places outside the United States—very small costs for surfing the net greatly inhibited discovery. The greatest impact on the dissemination of knowledge in education and the social sciences turns on the question of cost. Any charge, however small, will reduce access substantially. This is why that from among the many flavors of access Willinsky treats, one stands out as truly serving the common good: the subsidized model. And the subsidizers must be the universities whose very essence is the production and distribution of knowledge.


Partitioning the costs of publication makes the draw of truly free content clear and suggests an important omission in The Access Principle. Although Willinsky discusses the economics of scholarly journals, he doesn’t focus on the differences among different editorial tasks. A seemingly irreducible cost of traditional models of scholarly publishing is peer review. And Willinsky either does not see its connection to the access principle or has chosen to deal with it elsewhere. Desktop technology has reduced the cost of producing copy to near zero; authors do not need copyeditors, printers, artists, and the like to produce final copy of their reports. However, managing the business of peer review does require professional time that costs money. Interestingly, modern scholarly publishing now dominated by companies that took over the business by implementing low-cost desktop technology have essentially abandoned peer review in book publishing. Almost any manuscript can now find a willing scholarly book publisher.

If peer review is the sine qua non of scholarly publication, and if it is a cost that is unavoidable, then is it the case that free-to-read is merely a quixotic dream of hopeless idealists? Or is it a cost that universities should be expected to subsidize through contributing the time of their faculties—who already review their peers' works for commercial publishers (and for a relative pittance)? High-energy physicists manage much of their discussion with the arXiv.org reprint repository—with the ultimate fate determined by post-uploading responses rather than prepublication reviews. What might happen in other fields with similar arrangements? We will not propose our own answer to this question here since it would take up all of the space that attention to Willinsky's book deserves. However, we would love to see him turn his considerable analytic powers and meticulous research skills to the question of whether—or when and where—peer review is truly necessary.

Finally, we note one fact for those who wondered why Willinsky’s work on the need for open access comes in a $35 package. To his credit, and the credit of MIT Press, Willinsky passes the consistency test with flying colors. The director of MIT Press recently agreed to make a complete copy of The Access Principle available for free downloading.


Bacher, T. (2006, Jan. 3). Another view on the access principle. Inside higher ed. Retrieved January 3, 2006, from http://insidehighered.com/views/2006/01/03/bacher.

Natriello, G. (2005). The middle way: The very low cost model for scholarly publishing. In Colleges, code, and copyright:  The impact of digital networks and technological controls on copyright and the dissemination of information in high education (pp. 78–89).  ACRL Publications in Librarianship, No. 57.  Chicago:  American Library Association.

Willinsky, J. (1994). Empire of words: The reign of the OED. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Willinsky, J. (1998). Learning to divide the world: Education at empire's end. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.

Willinsky, J. (2000). If only we knew: Increasing the public value of social science research. New York: Routledge.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 8, 2006, p. 1715-1720
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12338, Date Accessed: 10/21/2021 7:38:33 PM

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About the Author
  • Gene Glass
    Arizona State University
    GENE V. GLASS is Regents' Professor of Education Policy Studies and Psychology in Education at Arizona State University. Trained originally in statistics, his interests now include evaluation methodology and policy analysis. In 1975, he was elected President of the American Educational Research Association. He served as Editor of the Review of Educational Research (196870), Editor for Methodology of the Psychological Bulletin (197880), and Co-Editor of the American Educational Research Journal (198386). He is a member of the National Academy of Education. His recent efforts center on the creation of open access ("free-to-read") scholarly electronic journals. From 1993 through 2004, he edited Education Policy Analysis Archives. Currently he serves as editor of Education Review and is Executive Editor of the International Journal of Education & the Arts.
  • Sherman Dorn
    University of South Florida
    SHERMAN DORN is Associate Professor of Social Foundations of Education at the University of South Florida. Educated in history and demography, his interests focus on institutional responses to traditionally marginalized populations and the framing of education policy. His authored and edited works include Creating the Dropout (Praeger, 1996), Schools as Imagined Communities (Palgrave Macmillan, 2005, with Deirdre Cobb-Roberts and Barbara Shircliffe), and Education Reform in Florida (SUNY Press, forthcoming, with Kathryn Borman). He is the current editor of Education Policy Analysis Archives and serves on the boards of Education Review, History of Education Quarterly, and the H-Education scholarly e-mail list.
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