There is a move afoot to make publicly funded monographs and journals Open Access (OA) – free – through the Internet. This is a revolutionary move that could lead to the vast dissemination of knowledge, a renaissance in scholarship, and help level the playing field between the haves and the have-nots.
I’m for it!
But in the rush to Open Access there is a push to produce online materials without the expertise of academic publishers. Will these books have the same value as the scholarly monograph that has been selected by experts, peer reviewed, and approved by an academic editorial board? Or will they languish like the thousands of self-published books that appear every week online, lacking editorial input and suffering from bad design? Will they, too, be ignored by book review editors and prize committees because they do not have the imprimatur of a publishing house and all the professionalism that goes with it? And would our most learned citizens be even less able to compete in the marketplace of ideas because of diminished distribution and publicity efforts?
If that’s the case, then I’m against it!
The shift towards OA began in response to academic journals being published by multinationals who take a larger and larger share of library budgets. Acting like the cable companies, they bundle their products together to force the consumer – librarians – to buy journals they don’t want so they can have access to those they do want. The fees are usurious and are constantly increasing, thanks to add-ons and updates. That most of what they publish is publicly funded seems not to matter at all. With budgets squeezed, scholarly presses have seen a dramatic decrease in monograph sales to academic libraries.
At the same time, the cost for many textbooks has gone through the roof, eliciting protests from students.
The multinational grip on publicly funded material is now being challenged through OA. In Canada, an OA system is in place for academic journals and is being developed for non-profit academic publishers too. The Association of Canadian University Presses is working with organizations that fund higher education to create a sustainable model. University of Regina is also developing an OA vision with support from the library, faculty, students, and administration. This genie is out of the bottle.
In that spirit, we have decided to experiment. There are many unknowns when it comes to OA, but our friends at Athabasca University Press, Canada’s first Open Access scholarly press, tell us, “academic presses sell more books by making their content freely available on the web.” For a publisher that is responsible for its bottom line, this is good news.
This spring, U of Regina Press released Free Knowledge: Confronting the Commodification of Human Discovery on our website for free. The first printing of 700 copies has already sold out in the paperback edition for $27.95. With activist and scholarly dimensions, Free Knowledge is on the front lines of debate about creating and protecting our Knowledge Commons. It also contains a warning from Gregory Younging about the ongoing expropriation of Indigenous knowledge – a reminder that this remains a complex issue.
More exciting for the OA movement is James Daschuk’s challenge to his colleagues. Within weeks, he will release on uofrpress.ca the 20 years of research that went into writing Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life, a national bestseller. He hopes new ideas flow from his research, with scholars, students, and writers using it to deepen our understanding of Canada’s relationship with the First Nations. This revolutionary move represents a leap forward for OA. Will others in the academy follow his lead?
Bruce Walsh is publisher of University of Regina Press.