New Journals, Free Online, Let Scholars Speak Out

Peter Searle for The Chronicle

John Willinsky, an education professor at Stanford U. (shown here visiting the U. of Oxford), offers free journal-publishing software to academics around the world. The program is being used to produce more than 5,000 online journals, he estimates, about half of them in developing countries.
February 14, 2010

He seems genial, but John Willinsky is a dangerous man.

As a leader in the development and spread of "open access" scholarly journals, which are published online and offered free, the Stanford University education professor is not just helping to transform academic publishing. He is also equipping scholars around the world with a tool to foment revolution.

"This is a strong vehicle for academic freedom," says Mr. Willinsky, whose Public Knowledge Project offers free journal-publishing software to academics. In a world where subscriptions to some medical journals can cost more than $10,000 a year, and many colleges in developing countries cannot afford more than a handful of scholarly publications, publishing enabled by this kind of tool is plugging many academics into research and discourse as never before.

For instance, a new journal based in Uganda recently published an article on a pressing problem in that country: post-traumatic stress disorder in child soldiers. Anyone around the world can conceivably read open-access journals dedicated to such controversial topics as ethnopolitics, international human rights, and queer studies.

Open-access academic publishing has its limitations and drawbacks. It can be blocked by Internet filters. Its low cost makes the publication of inferior and unreliable journals much easier. And, in rendering scholarship freely available to anyone who can go online, it increases the risk that research in fields such as medicine will fall into the hands of people who might misuse it.

Mr. Willinsky focuses on the upside. The software his project offers, called Open Journal Systems, has emerged as the most popular tool for posting peer-reviewed, scholarly journals online. He estimates that it is being used to produce more than 5,000 such journals, with roughly half coming out of developing countries where the cost of publishing them in print generally is prohibitive.

The Directory of Open Access Journals, maintained by the Lund University Libraries, in Sweden, lists more than 4,700 open-access scientific and scholarly journals that passed a screening for quality based on their publishers' assurances of peer review or editorial diligence. They cover the waterfront, with the sciences well-represented but other fields, such as history, linguistics, philosophy, and political science, each accounting for more than 100 publications.

Although a few hundred open-access journals are online versions of print publications, most "were born 'open access,' so they are new launches," observes Peter Suber, a research professor of philosophy at Earlham College who helped establish a Web site where advocates of the publishing method share information.

Cary Nelson, president of the American Association of University Professors, says he believes strongly enough in the ability of open-access publishing to promote academic freedom that it was the natural choice to produce the AAUP Journal of Academic Freedom, first published last month. "There was a synergistic relationship between the topic we were promoting and the method we were using to promote it," Mr. Nelson says. By posting the journal online rather than simply sending print copies to the association's members, he says, "we are making debates about academic freedom freely available to the entire profession."

Backing Rebels

Mr. Willinsky says he had given little thought to academic freedom when he established the Public Knowledge Project, in 1998, while a professor of literacy and technology at the University of British Columbia. He was more concerned with advancing people's "right to knowledge" internationally, a goal he sees embodied in a provision of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights guaranteeing all people the right "to share in scientific advancement and its benefits."

Then, in 2006, Mr. Willinsky became embroiled in a controversy which, he says, gave him a firsthand glimpse of open-access publishing's potential to advance academic freedom. A member of the editorial board of the Canadian Medical Association Journal, printed by the association's business arm, CMA Holdings, he found himself siding with the editors when they clashed with the business side over articles critical of pharmacists and Canada's new health minister.

He resigned from the board, along with 14 of its other 18 members, and helped several editors who had resigned or been fired set up a peer-reviewed, open-access journal, Open Medicine. To safeguard its independence, the editors refused two common sources of financial support for print medical journals: the sponsorship of professional associations, and advertisements by the manufacturers of drugs and medical devices.

In a 2007 article in the Canadian Journal of Communication, Mr. Willinsky joined three other founders of Open Medicine in recounting their experience. They argued that the editorial independence of scholarly journals is "a natural extension" of faculty members' academic freedom, which "depends on their work receiving a fair hearing and opportunity for wider circulation."

Noting how the women's-studies journals established in the 1970s gave people in that emerging field a forum to challenge prevailing ideas, the medical journal's founders expressed hope that open-access publishing similarly might give rise to new schools of thought.

Others who publish journals through open access say that it gives them flexibility and helps them immediately reach distant audiences. Joel R. Pruce, managing editor of Human Rights and Human Welfare, based at the University of Denver, says via e-mail that about 50 percent of visitors to that journal's Web site find it via online search engines, coming from all over the world.

"Our open-access, online format gets us to places we would otherwise find inaccessible," he says. "We publish as much as we want to when we want to, so we are unconstrained by page numbers and deadlines in the way others are."

Emerging Hazards

As a tool for promoting academic freedom, open-access publishing clearly has its pitfalls.

By making the products of research freely available to anyone, for example, it increases the risk that knowledge will fall into the hands of unintended audiences that could misuse it. Scholars might think of that possibility as a responsibility that goes along with the freedom to publish. In January 2007, after the journal Cancer Cell published a free online article saying that an inexpensive compound not yet approved for human use had shrunk tumors in laboratory animals, cancer patients and their loved ones began trying to obtain the substance from chemical suppliers and set up an online database to assist each other in self-medicating, Canada's Edmonton Journal reported.

By making it much cheaper and easier to produce academic journals and allowing scholars to place research that has not been peer-reviewed in universally accessible online repositories, open-access publishing can also make it easier to establish questionable publications and disseminate shoddy scholarship. Sanford G. Thatcher, executive editor for humanities and social sciences at the Penn State University Press and a former president of the Association of American University Presses, says the quality of open-access academic journals is "all over the map." Some, he suspects, are scams out to make money by charging scholars to publish their work.

Although open-access academic journals so far appear about as likely to be peer-reviewed as printed ones are, their quality is emerging as a concern as their numbers rise. Lars Björnshauge, director of libraries at Lund University, acknowledges in an e-mail message that the Directory of Open Access Journals bases its reviews of journals heavily on statements made by the journals' publishers, which it relies upon to be forthright. Last year, he says, the directory ended up culling about 100 journals from its list, mainly after determining that they had changed their business models.

Some of those journals were failing to comply with the requirement that they make all content freely available as soon as they publish it. But a bigger worry regarding the free flow of ideas is the filtering of Internet content by governments. The OpenNet Initiative, a collaborative involving scholars at Harvard University, the University of Toronto, and the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, says that more than 40 nations filter the Internet to various degrees. Among them, several Middle Eastern nations block content for political or religious reasons, while China, Myanmar, and Vietnam sharply restrict access to information the governments do not want citizens to have.

"There is kind of an arms race going on," says Mr. Suber, of Earlham College. "The tools for censoring are getting better all the time, but the tools for evading that censorship are also getting better all the time."

Regardless of online filtering, it generally remains easier to distribute online scholarship than printed academic journals. In the Palestinian territories, for example, an online research repository at Birzeit University helps scholars cope with limits on their movement imposed by walls and checkpoints.

Heather Joseph, executive director of the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition, a library membership group working to expand access to scholarly literature, says her organization works in several nations that filter the Internet. She says her group tries to make the case that the information made available through open-access journals is "a building block for all of us."

A Ladder Up

Mr. Willinsky's Public Knowledge Project is one of several nonprofit organizations working to promote open-access distribution of scholarship around the globe. Among others, Bioline International, a cooperative based in Toronto and Brazil, pulls together peer-reviewed bioscience journals coming out of developing countries such as Bangladesh and Ghana. The International Network for the Advancement of Scientific Publications, based in England, advises the creators of online journals around the world and has helped set up Web sites linking to online publications from Africa and several Asian nations. And the George Soros Foundation's pro-democracy Open Society Institute also has a program promoting open distribution of research. (Some nonprofit groups and print publishers also make printed journals available to colleges in developing nations free or at steeply discounted rates.)

Although some open-access academic journals finance themselves by charging scholars to publish their work, most do not, and many that do impose fees waive them for authors from developing nations.

By offering outlets to scholars who might have difficulty getting their work into established print journals, says Leslie Chan, a senior lecturer in new-media studies at the University of Toronto at Scarborough and associate director of Bioline International, "you are sort of leveling the playing field, letting the content of the research speak for itself."