SPARC Innovator: John Willinsky

Open Access

John Willinsky

John Willinsky first became an advocate for Open Access in 1998, after working on a collaborative project with a local Canadian newspaper and discovering he couldn’t provide the paper’s readers the relevant research online to accompany the articles on education that the paper was publishing.

“That was a turning point. I realized something was wrong with this picture,” says the 64-year-old Khosla Family Professor of education at Stanford University.

That epiphany led Willinsky to look into the idea of how scholarly research could be shared freely. There was no formal Open Access movement at the time, so he began exploring options to promote his “free to read” idea.

“I realized I needed to give people something more than just an argument,” says Willinsky.

He decided on a project devoted to building the tools to make the concept work. Willinsky founded the Public Knowledge Project and developed Open Journal Software (OJS), a free, open source platform that allowed journals to more easily and affordable publish online.

Willinsky estimates that there are currently 1.5 million articles published in journals using the  OJS platform. In 2012 alone, more than 6,000 journals published at least 10 articles using the software Willinsky helped pioneer.

“John is a rare combination of visionary, and pragmatic ,” says Heather Joseph, Executive Director of SPARC. “He understood the benefit of Open Access long before most people, and was also able to build  infrastructure that has been absolute crucial to the successful advancement of Open Access journal publishing..”

Because of Willinsky’s winning mix of enthusiasm, vision and the ability to bring effective business teams together to contribute to the successful expansion of Open Access, SPARC honors Willinsky with the January 2014 Innovator Award.

Over the years, Willinsky has traveled the world from India to South Africa, working to convince people that putting journals online is cheaper and more effective than traditional publishing. Librarians have been his most consistent audience – and that’s fine with Willinsky. He feels a special connection to them – after all, he was president of his high school library club.

In pitching Open Access, Willinsky notes that he often weaves in stories of his personal and career experience, which has influenced his dedication to the free sharing of knowledge. He talks of his early professional days as a classroom teacher for more than a decade, introducing children to reading. He talks about the allure of libraries then, coupled with the important role they continue to play in expanding public access to digital information.

He also uses his experiences as an Associate Professor of Education at the University of Calgary in the 1980s, and Pacific Press Professor of Literacy and Technology on the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia in 1990’s to inform his talks. In 2008, he moved to the Graduate School of Education, where he’s continued to pursue his passion for opening up access to information.

Willinksy often frames his commitment to Open Access as an issue of social justice. Rather than just being critical of journal pricing, Willinsky says he wanted to respond to a problem that he had observed with a tangible solution to help fix it. For Willinsky, Open Access was a way to positively impact one area of inequity in education – concerning access to knowledge – that was directly related to his career.

“It seems so basic so me, in terms of a human right,” says Willinsky of access to knowledge. “But I have also come to believe over the years that the real value of learning is found in sharing what you’ve learned.”

Willinsky feels there has been a change in the balance of power in publishing, and he is proud to have been of part of that.

“We sought to create a viable alternative,” says Willinsky. “I wanted this project to help others do the work that needs to be done – to give people the tools.”

Willinsky is well known for his penchant sharing the credit for OJS’s success. Brian Owen began working with Willinsky about a decade ago on PKP at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in Canada.

“John is the director and visionary,” says Owen, “but he is also a very generous person and regularly acknowledges folks on the team and their contributions. The dynamic of the group is a great one.”

Owen is Associate University Librarian for Technical Services and Acting Dean of Library Services. He also serves a Managing Director of PKO. With Willinsky now in California, the PKP team has weekly meetings on Skype and he is still involved in the operations and development of software.

Owen says that Willinsky particularly wants to help those in the developing world to have the tools they need to share their academic activities.

“John is frustrated by the fact that so many academics insist on living in ivory towers and do not get out there to be readily available,” says Owen. “One way to break down barriers is to provide software to publish online in scholarly journals.”

Lynn Copeland, a former Dean of Libraries at SFU, says Willinsky is “impassioned” in his effort to get information beyond the richly resourced mainstream. “He is very committed to his work  – and the social justice part of this is something that makes his life worthwhile.”

Willinsky’s influence has extended to his students. He has inspired many to care about issues of openness in research and has also become a mentor to them. One current student, Juan Pablo Alperin notes: “He has a way of presenting that is charismatic, charming, and eloquent,” says the 33-year-old doctoral candidate at the Stanford Graduate School of Education where his research focus is on scholarly communication. “He’s done a terrific job of being the voice for Open Access.”

Alperin says Willinsky has been particularly successful in helping to give voice to people of limited means. The tools he provides freely with the Open Journal Software allows researchers in developing countries to publish journals in a way that lowers costs and increases quality. In Latin America alone, thousands of Open-Access journals have been launched using the platform developed by Willinsky. “It’s been a terrific service to the regions of the world where commercial publishing is not viable,” says Alperin.

Caroline Sutton, cofounder and publisher of Co-Action Publishing in Scandinavia, says it’s because of the Open Journal Systems that businesses such as hers are able to exist. When she and her partners were setting up the company in 2007, the platform Willinsky helped develop was appealing because it was free and covered all aspects of the process.

“The entire process of publishing was integrated from submission to peer review to publishing,” says Sutton. “That shaves time off the process.”

Co-Action now publishes 2,000 articles a year in 40 Open Access journals and is one of PKP’s biggest customers. Through the partnership, PKP programmers work with Co-Action to help
customize the software and provide technical support. She has recommended the service to other startups because it is affordable and manageable.

While the figures vary, Willinsky favors current estimates that about 25% of the research produced in the last year will be available through some form of Open Access. The landscape is changing rapidly, and Willinsky says he is particularly encouraged by the White House getting behind the effort and other public policies that are changing on a global basis.

“The key is raising public expectations around the right to knowledge,” says Willinsky. “I am optimistic about the success of Open Access as the model for scholarly publishing going
forward. I am concerned about ensuring that the shift in money spent on journal subscriptions to open access publishing increases scholars’ equality of opportunity for sharing knowledge world-wide rather than the opposite.”

At Stanford, Willinsky teaches and conducts research. He’s on sabbatical now writing a history of the intellectual properties of learning. He is also the author of The Access Principle: The Case
for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press, 2006), Learning to Divide the World: Education at the Empire’s End (Minnesota, 1998), Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED (Princeton, 1994) among other titles.

When he’s not working, Willinsky plays guitar in a blues band that has been known to make the occasional appearances at academic conferences to inject some fun into what can otherwise be “drudgery,” he says. Willinsky is not planning to slow down anytime soon. He is too busy gearing up Open Access work in Latin America and Africa, meeting his book deadline – plus, there is a new lead singer in his band.

-by Caralee Adams

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