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Stanford University professor talks open access publishing

By Scott Strasser, September 27 2016 —

An expert on open access journals and advocate for their use presented at the University of Calgary last week on the benefits of the open access publishing model.

Stanford University professor John Willinsky was in Calgary to lecture at the U of C on Sept. 23 and Sept. 26.

Currently, the majority of academic journals used by university libraries are purchased in multi-year subscription packages from commercial publishing companies. The only people who can access those journals for free are students and faculty from a university that purchased them.

The open access model aims to challenge that practice by making online journals freely accessible without subscription fees.

Willinsky explained how and why university research is different from other types of intellectual property like pop music or novels. He argued that since post-secondary institutions are publicly-funded, scholarly works should be available to the public for free instead of solely members of the academic community.

“Scholarship and research are a special kind of intellectual property to which the world has a right to and to which we need to see in terms of people’s right to know,” Willinsky said.

He said taxpayers have a public claim to access scholarly information and that it would be a “crime against learning” to bar academic journals from the public.

“We do our research on behalf of the public, because we have [their] support for that research and we do it in publicly funded institutions,” Willinsky said. “But I also think there’s a deeper right to know. I think people should be able to share knowledge. Knowledge is a different kind of commodity than apples or ice cream. It’s something that hurts if it’s not being shared.”

A former member of the U of C Faculty of Education, Willinsky later worked at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University. While in Vancouver he developed the Open Journals System — an open source
software that enables academic journals to publish their work online for free.

Around 10,000 academic journals around the world currently use Willinsky’s software, which is now in its third edition.

“We’ve built a tool that enables others to build research communities, engage in peer review and publish research around the world,” Willinsky said.

The U of C’s use of the open access model has steadily increased since the university created an open access authors fund in 2008. Run by the university’s libraries and cultural resources department, the fund pays processing fees for researchers who author works in open access journals.

While the fund started with $100,000 in 2008, it has increased to $700,000 as of  September 2016.

According to U of C vice-provost libraries and cultural resources Tom Hickerson, the fund’s expansions are in response to a growing number of U of C faculty and researchers interested in writing for open access journals.

“The number of people who have wanted to publish in open access journals has increased every year,” Hickerson said.

The open access authors fund doubled from $350,000 to the current amount this year with help from the provost’s office and various faculties.

The provost’s office contributed $200,000 of the increase. U of C provost Dru Marshall said the open access authors fund “expands the scope of publishing options” for U of C researchers.

“We believe the U of C can be a leader in this area. By providing increased funding we can advance the scholarship and achievement of theentire university,” Marshall said.

But Willinsky said relying on continual increases to the fund is an inefficient model.

“That doesn’t recognize the public’s right to know, it says the authors can purchase open access,” he said. “I’m moving from a model of cooperation in which we recognize that the libraries should be paying for the journals to be completely open. Not on an article by article basis and not on an author–purchase basis.”

The U of C spends around $10 million per year on academic journal subscriptions. Hickerson said subscription costs increase around four to six per cent annually, highlighting the need for open access journals.

“We’ve tied [open access] very much to the conflict with commercial publishers and our own capacity to continue buying at the same rate,” Hickerson said. “We just had an announcement this year of five and six per cent increases in the cost of academic journals from some of the commercial publishers. We didn’t get a five to six per cent increase in our budget.”

The U of C currently subscribes to 11,556 journals, most of which are bought in multi-year subscription packages.

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