Sunday, March 11, 2018

The Intellectual Properties of Learning: John Willinsky discusses his new book

Sixteen years ago, the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI) predicted the dawn of a new age of scholarly communication. Its declaration begins, “An old tradition and a new technology have converged to make possible an unprecedented public good. The old tradition is the willingness of scientists and scholars to publish the fruits of their research in scholarly journals without payment, for the sake of inquiry and knowledge. The new technology is the internet.” 

Looking back, we might want to suggest that OA advocates spent too much time in the early years promoting the merits of openness, and too little time working out the best way of marrying the old tradition with the new technology. In addition, more time should have been spent on establishing what other old traditions of learning would need to be accommodated (and how) if the new world of scholarly communication that BOAI envisaged was to be realised. That too little consideration was given to these matters doubtless explains why so much confusion surrounds open access today, and why we are seeing growing frustration with it.

In light of this, a new book by John Willinsky – The Intellectual Properties of Learning, A Prehistory from Saint Jerome to John Locke – is timely.

Willinsky sets out to place open access within the larger historical context of learning’s traditions, values, and norms. And he does so by casting his eye all the way back to the rise of the monasteries, and then forward to the Statute of Anne (1710), which for the first time brought the regulation of copyright under the control of the government and courts, rather than private parties.

Willinsky is more than qualified to undertake this task. A former teacher and now Khosla Family Professor of education at Stanford University, Willinsky is also director of the Public Knowledge Project and widely regarded within the OA movement as a leader.

Willinsky’s purpose is clearly to promote open access, by demonstrating that it is a natural development of the culture of learning. As he put it in a recent blog post, while current demands for free access to publicly funded research “may seem an artefact of the internet, I hold that efforts to extend access to such work are part of a historic struggle among those devoted to learning, which in the history of the West, date back to the book-sharing and -copying networks that operated within the non-proprietary realm of medieval monasticism.”

Willinsky’s is a worthy and interesting project, but in reading his new book one is tempted also to look for an explanation as to why the OA movement has in many ways stumbled.