There are, at last count, between 25,000-50,000 academic journals published in the world. “It might be more than that,” admits Stanford’s John Willinsky, “it’s hard to get an accurate count.”

Willinksy was at MaRS last month as part of the Worldviews Conference on Media and Higher Education to talk about Open Journal Systems (OJS), a platform for publishing academic journals, for free, on the internet.

One of the ironies of the information age is that although we have platforms to deliver content to the far corners of the Earth, many academic journals still carefully guard their content, creating a gap between those with access to credible information and those without.

OJS aims to change that. The project is based at the Public Knowledge Project, a partnership between UBC, Simon Fraser University and Stanford University.  Their goal is nothing short of democratizing access to scholarly information world-wide.

“Large corporations have made it difficult for the sharing of knowledge by increasing prices,” says Willinksy. He sites the journal Brain Research, which holds a hefty price tag of $24,000 for a year subscription.

“All of us were losing access to information because of the high prices of journals,” he says. “Part of the open source movement is creating an alternate channel to get research.”

How Open Journals help smaller publications enjoy a larger voice

OJS currently hosts 9,300 journals, many of which are from developing countries and have traditional held very tiny markets. The biggest continental user is Latin America.

“These are scholarly publishers,” says Willinksy. “They are peer-reviewed journals, they have multiple editors.” But these publishers have traditionally been pushed out of the larger academic markets because of high cost and their lack of reputation.

“Because of the low barrier to publishing [with OJS], we’re giving people the ability to circumvent the commercial publishers,” says Willinksy. “This community has developed an alternative way of publishing.”

Because the platform is open-source, publishers can tweak the code to their own needs and can trade plug-ins and patches. Editors, too, can broker more direct relationships with the authors and solicit their feedback at any point in the publishing process.

This community is rooted in the tenet of academic freedom. “There’s a very strong libertarian ideology when it comes to their relationship to knowledge and research and the sharing of the software,” says Willinksy.

Powering the “right to know”

OJS’s success has certainly turned the heads of traditional publishers, who, like the rest of the publishing industry, are slowly watching their decades-old business model crumble.

Elsevier, the standard on-line platform that sells Brain Research and thousands of other scholarly journals, is big business.  Recently, Willinksy got a call from Elsevier who was interested in OJS’s meta-data on patterns of use in Thailand, who have embraced OJS.

GoogleScholar also came knocking, to provide some tips on improving the indexing of the OJS journals. “There’s a new kind of economy developing,” says Willinksy. Some of the OJS journals are now almost as visible on GoogleScholar as some of the larger, more established journals.

Willinksy ends his talk with a philosophical flourish: “Open source software is important for academic freedom. Knowledge is a public resource, and academic freedom isn’t freedom of speech, but the right to pursue knowledge.”

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Joseph Wilson

Joseph was an education advisor at MaRS Discovery District. He writes on topics of science, culture and city issues for NOW Magazine, the Globe and Mail, Spacing and Yonge Street. He is the Executive Director of the Treehouse Group, dedicated to fostering innovation by hosting cross-disciplinary events. See more…