John Willinsky's new book begins - quite effectively - by describing how rising prices and a fluctuating currency have forced the Kenya Medical Research Institute to cancel most of its subscriptions to medical journals. The true shame, the institute's librarian told Mr. Willinsky, is that that the five titles the library could still afford did not include any leading journals on the institute's prime research focus, tropical diseases.
Libraries, publishers, and the contributors to the journals, Mr. Willinsky argues in "The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship" (MIT Press, 287 pages, $35), are at the center of a global economic struggle that may determine the influence of scholarship on the world. Access to research and scholarship is in decline, as for-profit publishers drive up the cost of scholarly journals, forcing libraries to decimate their subscription lists.
This is not just a concern for specialists, journalists, and students. Scholarship can grant the delight "that comes from seeing how others have managed to make greater sense of the human condition," Mr. Willinsky writes. Following Thomas Jefferson, he argues that the public spread of information is vital to a functioning democracy.
Mr. Willinsky, a professor of literacy and technology at the University of British Columbia, mentions the helpful comparison of Jonathan Rose's recent book, "The Intellectual Life of the British Working Class," which describes the working-class autodidact in the 19th and early 20th centuries. With scant money or formal education, these men and women found books in libraries, and devoured them - not just to improve their souls, but to understand their world and how to change it.
Mr. Willinsky cites a study showing that Reed Elsevier, the largest publisher of academic journals (with 1,800 titles in its portfolio), cost the University of California half its budget for online publications in 2002, though its titles accounted for only a quarter of journal use. For-profit enterprises have so consolidated their market positions that, according to one estimate, three companies now control 60% of all materials catalogued in the world's leading citation index.
The problem, Mr. Willinsky argues, is that these corporations have figured out a way to increase their profits even as their journals' circulation declines, by "bundling" less popular titles with those that libraries cannot afford to cancel.They thereby force libraries to buy increasingly expensive journal subscriptions they otherwise might not have ordered. Commercial publishers can thus demand ever higher subscription prices: Scholarly journals have entered the new millennium with prices steadily rising 8%-10% a year.
Mr. Willinsky contrasts these market mechanisms with what he claims is a basic human right - the "right to know" - a right that "stands with other basic rights, whether to life, liberty, justice, or respect." He attempts to defend that right as a philosophical truth (relying on such strange bedfellows as Kant, Derrida, and political scientist Richard Pierre Claude). In this, he fails, as non-theistic arguments for the absolute existence of rights so often do.
Mr. Willinsky's arguments can be infuriatingly repetitive, as he is continually forced to acknowledge by phrases like "as I noted in chapter 2," or "as I will go on to discuss in more detail." Many of the chapters in this book began as articles published in various academic journals themselves, and it shows.
He is on much firmer ground in his argument that scholarship - often funded in large part by public money and conducted at nonprofit institutions whose purpose is to further public knowledge - should be publicly available. "With so much scholarly activity funded by public money," he writes, "it is only natural to ask whether there is now a way to distribute the resulting research in ways that make it open and available, as a global public good."
There is: The Internet, which eliminates the cost of printing, binding, and shipping journals, allows as many readers to view a work as can find their way to a computer. Many can't, Mr. Willinsky acknowledges, but why wait until the technology gap is closed to start providing the information to which the Internet can grant access?
The subtitle to this book is somewhat misleading, as "The Case for Open Access" takes up only a portion of the book. Histories of the scientific journal and the public library movement, while informative, don't add much to his central argument, and his criticism of the Bush administration's claims to a scientific basis for the No Child Left Behind Act is merely a tangent. Still, his book is thoughtful, informed, and thought-provoking, and his account of the role of the Internet and an incipient open-access movement is genuine news.