The Ideals of Open Access

Let me begin this post by affirming that I believe in the potential public benefits of open access to scholarly research.  Research of this nature can easily be compared to the idea of knowledge.  I am a firm believer in the right for anyone to have free and easy access to knowledge.  In that sense, open access is a great idea in promoting the rights of everyone to have free access to information and knowledge that can benefit themselves and society as a whole.  However, after reading the arguments in favor of open access presented in John Willinsky’s The Access Principle, open access seems to be based on too many ideals and assumptions on how access to research journals and articles will realistically be used.

Willinsky’s major argument stems from the idea that everyone has a right to free access of knowledge.  No one should be excluded from learning simply because he or she does not have a subscription to a specific scholarly journal.  While I agree with this, I really don’t think that the average person is clamoring for access to most of the academic journals that are currently published.  In fact, I’m not convinced most people even know the various journals that are out there (as a history major in undergrad I became familiar with various history-based research journals, but am rather oblivious to the resources available for other disciplines).  Willinsky bases his argument on the idea that there is a public out there who wants, and has the right to, the knowledge that is presented in various research journals.

Ideally, even if there is only one person who wants to read an article in the Astrophysical Journal then he or she should have free access to that information.  That’s the ideal of open access.  However, we do not live in an ideal society.  If there is not enough of a public demand then there is no economical sense for the publisher of the various journals to make these articles open to the public for free.

Willinsky stresses that open access is for the public good and scholars are responsible for contributing to that good.  That may be, but in order to make open access viable on a broad scale, scholars have to be willing to either pay out of their own pocket or sacrifice a potential payment in order to make their articles open to all.  No matter what, someone is paying for the circulation of knowledge and it seems Willinksy feels it is the scholars and publishers who should pay, not the general public.  Again, this argument is based on the ideal that all scholars believe that what they do is for the public good of our culture.  I may be a bit pessimistic here, but I’m not convinced that every scholar who writes an article would be willing to pay a fee to make it free to the public.  And I really can’t blame them.

I’m not entirely convinced that making these journals, which are sometimes pretty obscure, available to the public will encourage more people to read them.  Most journals could be open access right now and I really would have no idea.  Willinsky tries to make the connection between the growing interest people have in medical information with information in other disciplines.  I think that attempt is a bit of a reach.  People are interested in expanding their knowledge of medical diagnoses because it directly affects their personal lives.  Everyone wants confirmation that they are healthy, so it’s natural that a lot of people will want to find that confirmation in legitimate medical resources such as journals.  However, I don’t see the same desire of the general public to read about astrophysics or 14th century France in an attempt to increase their knowledge simply because it’s hard to see any significance in those studies unless you have a specific interest.

Overall open access is a great idea, but it’s based on too many ideals.  It’s my pessimistic belief that even if all research journals were free to the public, the circulation of knowledge would not increase substantially at all.  Willinsky is extremely optimistic in his belief that people want, and are seeking, this improved access to information that is currently restricted to research journals.  These journals should be open to anyone because knowledge should not be restricted, but even if this information is not readily available I don’t think too many people in the general public will even notice.

2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Ideals of Open Access

  1. The thing is, there’s so little cost involved. It may very well be that outside of the academic community, there are only a dozen people in the world who want access to your article. But it was hard to give them access in the age of print media. It’s easy now, and the costs of that access are low. No printing, no binding, no boxing or shipping, no shelf-stocking. We don’t give them access because our mental frame is still the print book

  2. I think what I’m trying to argue here is that for the first time in human history, you don’t need “scale” to distribute knowledge. In the past it wasn’t cost-effective to print journals for an audience of 12 people. But now those costs are gone, or the whole question of cost-effectiveness has been radically downsized

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