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In Conversation: Open Access

Technology and the circulation of knowledge
October 12, 2010
By Karen Herland
Source: Concordia Journal

Darren Wershler and Gerald Beasley | Photo by Concordia University
Darren Wershler and Gerald Beasley | Photo by Concordia University

Concordia University became Canada’s first university to pass an Open Access resolution at Senate in April 2010. This decision has implications for authors, researchers, publishers, professors, librarians and, ultimately, anyone with an internet connection.

To keep the conversation manageable, we invited two people, who between them wear many hats, to discuss the state of intellectual property and Open Access in Canada.

Darren Wershler has recently joined the Department of English. The author of a dozen books, including FREE as in speech and beer: open source, peer-to-peer and the economics of the online revolution, Wershler has been interested in questions related to digital media, copyright and cultural policy for many years.

In 1997, while he was Senior Editor at Coach House Press, the press became the first Canadian press to publish simultaneous full-text editions online and in print. “There was some fear, uncertainty and doubt about what we were doing — concern that people would be downloading and stealing our authors’s books,” said Wershler, adding, “I often thought that if someone stole a book of poetry, that would be the publicity coup of the century.”

Wershler returned to academia to consider the policy implications of the new models for distribution afforded by technology. He met University Librarian Gerald Beasley for the first time In Conversation.

Beginning in 2008, not long after arriving at Concordia from Columbia University, Beasley led the university community in an 18-month discussion on the importance of Open Access both in principle, given the global economy, and in practice, with the inauguration of the university’s repository, Spectrum. As a librarian, Beasley felt himself well-suited to the task. “We tend to be about access and removing economic barriers to access to information.”

In Faculty Councils and Senate, Beasley addressed a range of questions and concerns to get the community to support a resolution in time for Congress, held here in May 2010. Hearing input from across the university made Beasley more aware of the very real differences across disciplines. “I was inheriting a huge number of very interesting conversations that had already taken place.”

Spectrum, the university’s institutional repository, puts Concordia’s creative output at your fingertips. | Photo by Concordia University
Spectrum, the university’s institutional repository, puts Concordia’s creative output at your fingertips. | Photo by Concordia University

Wershler and Beasley discussed some of the implications of Open Access on a wider scale. Wershler pointed out that small presses, like Coach House, work on a reputation economy, with relatively few sales of any given volin Conversation ume. “The book is what allows you to do other things as an author… it gets you readings, it gets you residencies, it gets you the opportunity to make other books, and sometimes it gets you jobs,” he said. Get the book into more people’s hands, electronically, and the potential for those other opportunities grows.

Although the reputation economy is slightly different in a university, Beasley pointed out that knowledge distribution in terms of sharing research is also valuable. “Your career advances, you may get tenure, research chairs, awards, invitations to conferences and so on.”

Both agreed that technology, primarily the internet, has been an important factor. “Technology has enabled a completely different way of looking at the outputs of research,” Beasley said. However, universities have not necessarily taken this into account in terms of evaluating scholarly success. If publication in peer-reviewed print journals still is considered more prestigious than open access publishing, Concordia’s position carries less weight. “Universities need to engage on a collective level in this discussion,” he said. “It’s hard for one university to take a position without other universities taking cognizance of the implications.”

The internet has also both underscored and realigned the differences in access to information, and in reputation, between the global north and the global south. “The potential is the two-way street, especially in relation to developing nations and for communities that don’t have the privilege of academic life,” said Beasley.

Wershler agreed. “On a global scale, open access is a profoundly ethical question. The ability of North American companies or journals to effectively lock up material,” he said. “When talking abut biomedical questions, it’s a life or death issue.”

He stressed that librarians are at the forefront of these questions, recalling a description of their role as “some kind of wild counter-cultural vanguard. You start to realize how radical the basic operating principles of a library are.” He said that copyright can be used not just to restrict access to material, it can also be used to ensure that material is available in the broadest possible context.

Wershler is currently developing an online, open access web-based academic journal. “I’m excited and encouraged by the kinds of things that have been happening here since I arrived. Concordia has a fabulous reputation for collaborative research. The repository is a huge first step.”

Beasley agreed, noting that the current climate is ideal to intervene on these questions, since corporations and policy-makers are poised to make decisions in the medium term that may shut down parts of the discussion.

Listen to the entire conversation:



Gerald Beasley will speak on “The Open Access Initiative at Concordia: What Exactly Is It?” on Oct. 20 in the Hall Building, H-763 at noon, during Open Access week. This discussion is part of the Open to Question series. All sessions are recorded and podcasts, including the recent presentation by University CFO Patrick Kelley, are available online.

Related links:
- Darren Wershler's website
- Open Access at Concordia

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