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Willinsky honored for developing open access platform

SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, has given its Innovator Award to the Stanford education professor.

John Willinsky
John Willinsky

By Caralee Adams for SPARC

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 re-publish his own research online with the package.

“That was a turning point,” said the 63-year-old professor of education at Stanford University. “I realized something was wrong with this picture.”

Willinsky realized that the legal barriers against sharing published research findings and the high cost of academic journals were keeping the public from having access to important work. 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 (since then, one has blossomed), 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,” said Willinsky, who then came up with a solution that helped to actively transform the scholarly communication world.

In the late 1990s, Willinsky founded the Public Knowledge Project and developed Open Journal Systems, a free, open source platform that allows journals to be more easily and affordably published online. The results speak for themselves: today more than 1.5 million articles are published in journals using the OJS platform. In 2012 alone, over 5,000 journals published at least 10 articles using the software Willinsky and his team pioneered.

For this work, SPARC, the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, has given Willinsky its semi-annual Innovator Award, which was established in 2006. The list of previous winners includes the journal PLoS One, the University of California and the World Bank.

“We’re proud to honor his rich contributions to changing the face of scholarly communication,” said Heather Joseph, executive director of SPARC, in a news release posted Jan. 27. “John is a rare combination of visionary and pragmatic. 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.”

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 noted 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 associate professor of education at the University of Calgary in the 1980s, and Education Pacific Press Professor of Literacy and Technology on the Faculty of Education at the University of British Columbia in the 1990’s to inform his talks.

In 2008, he moved to Stanford’s Graduate School of Education, where his reputation goes beyond his scholarship and innovation. He’s the closest thing the school has to a rock star: when he’s not working, Willinsky plays guitar in a blues band. The group has been known to perform at academic confabs, including last year’s annual AERA conference, as well as at GSE gatherings in the lobby of Cubberly Hall.

At Stanford, his passion for opening up access to information has continued and flourished. Not only has it been the focus of his research, he helped to establish the Stanford GSE Open Archive, where faculty and students make copies of their peer-reviewed journal articles freely available to the public. And his work has made him a leader of the Open Access movement.

Willinsky is currently on sabbatical from the GSE and is now writing a book about the history of intellectual property. He is also the author of The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press, 2006), Technologies of Knowing (Beacon, 2000) and Learning to Divide the World: Education at the Empire’s End (Minnesota, 2008), among other titles.

Willinksy has framed his commitment to Open Access as an issue of social justice. For Willinsky, Open Access is a way to positively impact the inequity in education that he had observed throughout his career. “It’s so basic in terms of a human right,” said Willinsky of access to knowledge. “The value of learning is in the sharing.”

Lynn Copeland, a former dean of libraries at Simon Fraser University (SFU) in British Columbia, Canada, described Willinsky as “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.”

Brian Owen, acting dean of library services at SFU and a managing director of PKO, said that Willinsky is particularly driven to help those in the developing world. He wants to provide them with 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,” said Owen, who began working with Willinsky about a decade ago on PKP. Rather than just being critical of the existing system, Willinsky aims to offer a tangible solution to help fix it. “One way to break down barriers is to provide software to publish online in scholarly journals,” explained Owen.

Willinsky’s commitment has influenced students. He has been not only an academic mentor but also has inspired many to care about issues of openness in research; last year Stanford GSE students resoundingly adopted a policy to make their research accessible to all. “He has a way of presenting that is charismatic, charming and eloquent,” said Juan Pablo Alperin, a 33-year-old Stanford doctoral candidate in education who helped to champion the student resolution and who has studied with Willinsky. “He’s done a terrific job of being the voice for Open Access.”

Alperin, whose research examines open access and scholarly publishing in Latin America, said 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 allow 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 that region of the world without the resources to be involved with commercial publishing,” said Alperin.

While the figures vary, Willinsky estimates that about 23 percent of the research produced in a given year is now published in Open Access journals. The landscape is changing rapidly, and Willinsky said he is encouraged by new policies promoting Open Access in the United States and abroad. There has started to be a shift in the balance of power in publishing. “We created a viable alternative,” he said.

“The key is raising expectations around the right to knowledge,” he added. “I am optimistic about the whole of [Open Access]. I am cautious about the financing and economics of it, but there is an inevitability to it — the whole movement about science taking back science.”

SPARC is an international alliance of academic and research libraries working to create a more open system of scholarly communication. Its membership includes nearly 800 institutions in North America, Europe, Japan, China and Australia.  The SPARC Innovator Award is an initiative that recognizes an individual, institution or group that exemplifies SPARC principles by working to challenge the status quo in scholarly communication for the benefit of researchers, libraries, universities and the public.

Caralee Adams is a freelance writer covering education, health and parenting. This article is based largely on a version she wrote for SPARC, which was published with a Creative Commons license permitting reuse with attribution. Additional information came from the Stanford Graduate School of Education and a news release from SPARC.