Public Knowledge Project Conference 2009: Reflections

As promised, I have put together some general reflections on the recent Public Knowledge Project conference held in Vancouver from July 8th-10th.

I attended the conference as part of my work on the Notes on Knowledge Mobilization page on the NiCHE website. I went to the conference with the intention of doing a lot of listening in order to learn more about the current state of the open access movement in scholarly publishing and the development of open source software for the publication of academic journals and monographs. I listened and I learned.

I. Learning as a Different Kind of Intellectual Property

One of the key concepts that I took from the PKP conference was highlighted in John Willinsky’s opening keynote, titled “Free? What’s So Special About Learning? The Intellectual Property Argument”. He made a convincing case for thinking about the intellectual property of learning as distinct from commercial intellectual property. This, he argued, comes from a historical tradition in English law that provided a number of different exemptions in copyright law for universities and scholars.

It seems to me that this idea of a distinct status for the intellectual property of learning lies at the centre of the open access movement in scholarly publishing. If learning lies outside the commercial market (especially in the case of publicly-funded universities) then, as Rowland Lorimer argued in his talk at the conference, “Scholarly communication must escape from the copyright rubric.” Cory Doctorow makes a similar claim in the video I posted in June, arguing that educators have no obligation to uphold the interests (and sustain the business-models) of commercial publishers. Assuming then that the principal aim of scholarship is not to derive profit from research and publication, but to educate and contribute to public knowledge, it would seem that scholars should pursue the most freely accessible forms of publication possible.

I believe that it is urgent for historians, more so perhaps than other scholars, to seek out the most freely accessible forms of publication in order to more adequately fulfill our role in public history. There are often too many barriers between the public at large and historical scholarship. Canadian historians are all too familiar with this problem as some of the very best scholarly works in Canadian history rarely reach a wide audience outside of academia. Furthermore, if most of our research is supported by public funds, historians should then disseminate their research findings in a manner that is more accessible to the public.

II. The Economics of Open Access Scholarly Publishing

There were a handful of presentations at the PKP conference that touched on the touchy matter of money. What are the economics of open access scholarly publishing? This seems to be one of the greatest hurdles for journals in the humanities. How do you economically support and sustain an academic journal that is published on an open access model? Without subscriptions, where do you derive revenue to produce the journal? The PKP conference only seemed to offer a few answers.

Frederick Friend was correct when he stated in his conference presentation that academic journals are too vital to the scholarly community to collapse. But in the context of changing technologies, changing cultures of communication, and changing financial circumstances, academic journals will have to… change. Those changes, of course, will have consequences for the bottom line of commercial publishers, especially in the field of scientific, technical, and medical publications (STM). Presenters from university libraries had much to say about the steep costs of STM journal subscriptions from commerical publishers, but, unfortunately, they had little to say about subscription-based social sciences and humanities journals produced by not-for-profit publishers. This is the greatest concern for historians.

The Public Knowledge Project’s open source software, Open Journal Systems (OJS), has had a tremendous impact on the development of open access scholarly publishing. More than 3,000 journals, many in the social sciences and humanities, now use OJS, running on annual costs of between $0 and $20,000. While many of the journals using OJS publish with almost no costs, many at the conference quickly added that most of the labour involved in publishing these journals was voluntary. In fact, several participants indicated that open access scholarly publishing for journals involves a great deal of volunteerism, often aided by departments that offer teaching relief in exchange for service on a scholarly journal.

This seems to be the main challenge for social sciences and humanities journals, looking to “take the plunge,” as one conference presenter put it, into the open access model. Without subscription revenue, more of the work to produce a journal will have to be done on a voluntary basis. This raises a number of concerns for editors and editorial assistants who already carry an enormous workload to publish an academic journal.

Furthermore, as journals make this transition, they may also have to make the transition away from print copies entirely. At least this is the future, Graeme Wynn envisions for BC Studies. In the most recent issue of this long-running Canadian regional journal (Issue 161, Spring 2009), Wynn announced that BC Studies will be adopting OJS and will likely be transitioning to an open access model of some kind. This, he said, will most likely result in the “elimination of regularly produced hard-copy issues of the journal,” although he didn’t rule out the possibility of a print-on-demand option. For Canadian and environmental historians who are interested in the open access movement and scholarly publishing, I would suggest keeping a close eye on the direction of BC Studies over the next year or so.

III. Resources

The PKP conference was certainly an enriching experience for anyone interested in learning more about the state of open access scholarly publishing. I have compiled a short list of resources about the conference for those who were unable to attend.

Blog Reports:

Willinsky on the Intellectual Property of Learning

Highlights and Athabasca University Press

The Economics of Open Access Publishing for Scholarly Communications

Rowland Lorimer and a New Journal

Official PKP Conference Blog


PKP Conference Video Archive

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