John Willinsky Honoured with SSHRC Impact Award

John Willinaky onstage
John Willinsky in his bandleader role.

On November 22, 2016, John Willinsky, professor (part-time) in the SFU Publishing Program, was awarded the 2016 Connection Award at a Social Science and Humanities Research Council ceremony held in Ottawa. The Connection Award is one of SSHRC’s five annual Impact Awards, recognizing the highest level of achievement among Canadian scholars working in the social sciences and humanities. The Connection Award recognizes outstanding contributions in facilitating the flow and exchange of research within the academic community and beyond. In Willinsky’s case, this was achieved through his Public Knowledge Project (PKP) at SFU and Stanford University, which has grown into a major pillar in the movement to provide open access to research and scholarship.

Within the academic community, there is a move among research libraries, funding agencies, and many publishers to provide open access to this body of knowledge for the benefit of professionals, policymakers, students the world over, and interested readers generally. Founded in 1998, PKP’s part has been to conduct research on the value of that access and develop open source (free) publishing software and services for journals and books to help support wider, public access to research.

In 2001, PKP first released Open Journal Systems (OJS), which has gradually grown into the most widely used scholarly publishing software in the world (to the best of our knowledge), with more than 10,000 active journals using OJS as part of their publishing process. Yet Willinsky remains relatively modest about the achievement.

It’s not that I foresaw or imagined the extent of OJS’s success,” explains Willinsky, “It was a lucky break that I and others happened to develop this software at the right time for the academic community’s transition to online management and publishing of research journals. There’s nothing available quite like this open source software in scholarly publishing today.”

Currently the Khosla Family Professor at the Graduate School of Education at Stanford University, as well as a professor (part-time) at SFU, it’s clear that Willinsky has put a lot of effort and work into PKP. This theme of public knowledge forms a common thread throughout a career that began with a decade of public school teaching before he became a professor casino games of education, beginning at the University of Calgary.

The need for open access crystalized for Willinsky in 1998, while he was holding an endowed professorship from Pacific Press (now CanWest) at the University of British Columbia, which enabled him to work with Vancouver newspapers. He realized that while education research was beginning to move online, the school teachers who were at the heart of his teaching and research, as well as newspaper readers, could not access this published work, a problem that extended to the university itself, in some cases, as it faced ever-more costly subscriptions.

“I believe people have a right to this research,” Willinsky passionately states, pointing to how it is the product of a university system that is federally and student funded, as well as tax-exempt, because of its service and value to society. Open access is not refusing payment to professional writers, whether poets or journalists, Willinsky points out, for open access is about the work of researchers, not the trade authors and publishers that fill bookstores and bestseller lists.

“We’ve just reached the halfway point in terms of the proportion of research that is open access each year,” Willinsky notes, citing a number of recent studies, whether through open access journals, institutional repositories, or rogue copies. “The early adopters have taken up open access in a big way, but now the challenge is to move the remaining subscription journals to open access, representing roughly $10 billion in library expenditures. We think the key is for the libraries to reallocate that money to the support of those journals on an open access basis.”

Transforming that subscription sum into open access support will clearly be an uphill battle, but it’s one that Willinsky is familiar with. In 2003, with the support of a McArthur Foundation International Peace and Security grant, he traveled to five continents pitching the importance of moving journal online, while offering an early (free) version of OJS that, alas, had no takers at that time.

Two years later, PKP partnered with SFU Library, and with managing direction from Associate Librarian Brian Owen and technical direction from Alec Smecher, as well as a team of close to twenty full- and part-time associates at SFU and abroad, its software began to take hold. In OJS’s global spread, two-thirds of the 10,000 journals using the software are in the Global South. What has made this possible, in Willinsky’s estimation, is the PKP team’s cooperative approach to developing the software with global input.

The original partnership with SFU has only strengthened, and has now expanded to include sponsoring university libraries across Canada and the United States, as well as a community of users that spans the globe. PKP also continues to be the recipient of research and development grants from federal funding agencies and private foundations that enable it to develop cutting-edge technologies and publishing services, as well as conduct studies of research’s social media impact and well as historical inquiries into the origins of learning’s intellectual properties.

It has recently begun, for example, a MacArthur-funded study exploring the economic viability of publishing cooperatives for converting library subscriptions into OA support. Willinsky admits that in this time of terrific change in the realm of public knowledge, with library budgets slashed, bookstores closing, publishers merging, and newspapers folding, but this only adds to the urgency of projects such as his, in the discovery and creation of new ways to improving access to learning.

I think it’s the most exciting possible change in education at all levels to have this world of research and scholarly knowledge widely and publicly available,” gushes Willinsky, “We have an obligation and responsibility to contribute to the educational impact of the changes that might be realized through the wider sharing of this knowledge.”

Congratulations to John Willinsky and the Public Knowledge Project team for this SSHRC Impact Award!

For more on John Willinsky’s Impact Award, see the SSHRC-CRSH web page highlighting the award.