Friday, June 16, 2006

Eschenfelder overall comments

First, I want to begin by saying that there is a lot I like and respect about this book:

a. it pulls together a lot of disparate information about the motivations for and dreams associated with OA
b. in doing so, it provides references to a diverse set of research about the related issues in a very useful way
c. it's pleasurable to read : )
d. it's a book - I've never written one!
e. Willinkson's emphasis on "the access principle" (the principle of increasing and improving access, impact, participation and circulation: pg. 29) instead of a specific tool and or business model is a very useful way to approach the problems that drive the OA movement. Appendix A "10 flavors of OA" is extremely useful.

I will probably assign portions of the book to my class as a good intro to many of the issues associated with OA and the 10 flavors portion emphasizes the different possibilities/business models associated with the end goals (his "access principle")

But I have some complaints about the book:

1. It spans so much territory, that Willinsky can't do justice to all the subtopics he takes on. It values breadth over depth; but depth would be much more interesting in the end. I would have recommended that the book focus on and expand chapters 1-7 and 12.

2. Unsupported claims: The lack of depth in certain sections results in some unsupported claims about how OA will solve this or that problem that undermine the overall effectiveness of his arguments. For example, he claims on pg. 181/182 that the "prospect of even citation indexing's becoming an open access resource, the possibilities of building an integrated and open system of indexing... becomes more feasible." Well, maybe. Yes, the fact that bib information is online and thus harvestable via OAI-PMH makes it more feasible, but it doesn't make commercial/non-profit/library cooperation more likely. He has left out any sort of analysis of the history of interactions between different indexing organizations, their business strategies & what motivations they have to cooperate or not cooperate in this venture. It would have been great if he had included that sort of analysis. Another example is the unsupported claim that OA will improve science journalism (p.g 136). Again, well maybe. Maybe certain journalists will be dilligent and make use of OA articles to improve their stories; but maybe other larger institutional forces like deadlines, editor interests, and limited understandings will mean that they won't.

3. Tech determinism: This book employs largely technological determinist assumptions that OA will cause certain (typically good) things to happen. From a social informatics perspective (my particularly theoretical camp) broad assumptions like these are highly suspicious. While OA may cause certain good things to happen under certain conditions, they won't happen all the time under all conditions. So the real questions are under what (cultural/temporal/economic/etc.) conditions will these things occur?

Willinksy doesn't fall into the trap of assuming OA will necessarily disempower publishers. LIS researchers like Rob Kling and Phil Agre point out that many technologies which we initially hoped would change power structures and empower underpriviledged groups instead tend to reinforce existing power structures. It may be that OA, under one of the 10 flavors presented by Willinsky, will end up reinforcing publishers power instead of moving power to a publisher/author/library cooperative (as suggested in chapter 6)

4. The historical context/openness spin. Willinsky contradicts himself in placing OA in a historical context. In Chapter 1, he argues that OA is part of a larger historical tradition of libraries and scholars maximizing access to materials. He says something about scholars visiting the ancient libraries at Alexandria. But as our very own Madge Klais points out, access to scholarly resources in ancient times was hardly open; rather, it was directly tied to class. If you weren't a gentleman, you couldn't read and you certainly had no business in the Alexandria library - unless it was to wash something. In a much later chapter Willinsky admits that access has long been tied to the politics of reading and who can read. Instead of spinning OA as part of a tradition of openness and access, I think he should have spun it as progress away from historically closed acccess to materials.



k8 said...

I, too, thought it was really shallow. And this disappointed me because I really do like the overall ideas. I suspect it is the same issue that pops up in a lot of the writing I see at the Writing Center - by trying to cover too much territory, the writer isn't able to deal with anything in depth, leading to a type of superficiality that feels like repetition. Because so much is glossed over, it starts to feel like the same idea repeated - readers don't get a chance to chew over the nuances.

Dorothea said...

I think it's important to remember that Willinsky is an activist. He chose shallow over broad deliberately (I believe), because the biggest problem open access has right now is getting NOTICED and TAKEN SERIOUSLY.

(Should either FRPAA or the CURES Act get passed, I think that will change in a hurry -- but neither of those is a sure thing, so write your congresscritter today!)

Subtle argumentation and reams of lit review wouldn't achieve Willinsky's goal in writing this book, I don't think. He wants people to wake up and smell the coffee, not deliberate endlessly about the chemical reactions involved. ;)

k8 said...

I don't know that he needed "reams of lit review" to make me happier. He didn't need to be subtle, either. But the repetitious (almost didactic) feel of his writing bored me. And if you bore your readers, you won't get your message across, no matter how much of an activist you are.

It is possible to write with passion and depth. Maybe I just want him to be a better writer, one that uses modes of persuasion effectively and passionately.

Dorothea said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Dorothea said...

Okay, I'm actually with you there. :) There's some history to it. One or two of open access's most passionate defenders are, frankly, its biggest loons. (Won't name names. Isn't hard to find out who I mean.)

I think Willinsky found himself somewhat boxed-in; he wanted to remain accessible to people who haven't been steeped in this debate (and 90+% of academics haven't!), while still serious enough to be taken seriously by people who will seize on any chance to call a loon a loon.

(Or a grebe a loon. Or a duck a loon. It's easy for open access to get tarred with the loon brush because of its few loons -- and I say this as someone who writes unguardedly enough to sound more than a bit loony at times.)

It's a tough dance, tougher because Willinsky's book is cobbled together out of bits he wrote for different publications and different audiences at different times. I wish to goodness Peter Suber would write a bloody book already, because I think he'd dance it better.

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