Academics need to acknowledge the elephant in the Open Access salon

In “A Brief History of the Intellectual Properties of Learning” presented as part of a mediaX event at Stanford in March 2014, Dr. John Willinsky contrives a constellation that includes monasticism, natural law, scholasticism, and publishing in order to shine their construed light upon the Open Access movement. (Dr. Willinsky was honored with the Innovator Award by the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) in January 2014 for his work in founding the Public Knowledge Project and developing Open Journal Systems.)  Part Stanford hagiography and part historical survey, this presentation does provide some context for thinking about Open Learning. While self-consciously trying to be relevant to a modern tech-savvy audience, this presentation fails to coalesce and leaves one mainly with the pithy claim that there is “a division between the intellectual properties of learning” and popular music.

An elephant running the masai mara by Brittany H.

Photo by Brittany H. Attribution-NonCommercial 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC 2.0)

What are the “intellectual properties of learning”? Dr. Willinsky does not spell them out. He points at things which seem to be relevant: the reading habits of the Benedictine Order, the Statute of Anne, the political dilemma of John Locke, Stanford University library’s lending practices, the excitement of open access materials for physicians, the inclusion of an open access requirement in a recent U.S. Congressional appropriations bill. But these topics are left on the table for us to rearrange.

Photo of a Karl Marx Lego(R) figurine

Photo by Andrew Becraft. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Clearly Dr. Willinsky is an enthusiastic proponent for, and a true champion of, Open Access. But public knowledge and open publishing do not equate to Open Learning. Changing the price tag does not entail interacting with, or thoughtfully making use of, a product. But there is also a wonderful opportunity here to reclaim the concept of “intellectual property” which is missed. For me, intellectual properties should be reclaimed as epistemological characteristics instead of legalese relating to notions of ownership.  But here Dr. Willinsky instead opts to try and re-frame land use metaphors which serve to reinforce the very frame he seeks to change.  We need to be discussing Marx—a glaring omission from this exercise in historical contextualization—not Justin Bieber. We need to be explicit and say the words: the use value of knowledge always exceeds its exchange value. Or, if you prefer the capitalist credit card advertising meme: free access to published knowledge? Priceless.

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