GL, Open Access, and Scholarly Publishing

The following is by guest blogger John Willinsky.

John is a Professor at the Department of Language and Literacy Education at UBC, and the Public Knowledge Project.

Michael Lines has asked Professor Willinsky to comment on the open access movement and the changing sense of what it means to publish in relation to scholarly inquiry.

Once there was a way to tell the grey literature from what had been clearly and cleanly published in black and white. It was all in the font and binding. For the better part of the twentieth century, the grey literature was typically the work of typewriters, mimeographs, photocopies and other devices, with the pages stapled, paper-clipped, and three-hole punched in binders, to not too fine a spin on it. The grey literature, it was once easy to see on picking it up, had not been formally prepared and typeset, nor was it intended to be widely circulated or readily available.

The computer and laser printer changed some of that by removing any typographic distinctions that set the grey literature off from work that had been formally published, while the Internet over the last decade-and-a-half in scholarly publishing has almost completely blurred critical aspects of the distinctions between grey and published literature, as those distinctions apply to academic communication. My work with the Public Knowledge Project has been to explore how greater access to scholarly work is reshaping the possibilities for the circulation of this form of knowledge, and one aspect of that is how in some scholarly fields, such as physics, that circulation is going global well before a work is formally published, while at the same time, the formal peer-reviewed publication of that work is no longer the principal site of its circulation.

In 1991,what is now known as was started by Paul Ginsparg, as a place where “pre-prints” of papers in high-energy physics could be posted. Today, there are 380,000 “e-prints” in physics, Mathematics, Computer Science and Quantitative Biology that have been made freely available through These papers include early drafts, revised versions, published versions, and corrected versions, with sometimes a mix of versions of the same paper through its iterations. With tens of thousands of connections made daily to the site, it seems pretty clear that a good number of researchers are using the site as their portal into the literature, whether it black, grey, or white. The relevant journals continue to sell subscriptions (with little reported decline) and conduct the peer reviews, but what makes the knowledge go round, and grow is the immediate, free, revisable, and open circulation of the work collected in represents a blurring of just the sort of distinctions that GL once served so well to make.

The open and free circulation facilitated by the Internet, which has been so dramatically demonstrated by, has given rise to an “open access movement” within scholarly communication. While eprint archives have not attracted nearly the same level of activity in other fields, although law is well represented in SSRN archive, many authors have begun to place copies of their published journal articles in open access archives, as the vast majority of journal publishers permit the posting of the author’s final version (rather than the publisher’s PDF). A number of funding agencies, such as the Wellcome Trust, have begun to insist that recipients of research funds place the related publications in an open access repository. Such mandates are being considered

Then, there is open access journal publishing, itself, which is where we have been concentrating our efforts with the Public Knowledge Project. We have developed Open Journal Systems, which is open source software for the management and publishing of peer-reviewed journals. This lowering of journal operating costs (as low cost was once a distinguishing feature of GL) is increasing opportunities for scholars in developing countries to more readily run indexed, peer-reviewed journals online, as well as enabling academic freedom to be more easily exercised through the founding of new titles in innovative areas.

What all of this points to is how the wider, more immediate and openly public, circulation of research and scholarship is trumping the traditional distinctions of the print literature. Much of this open research has been peer-reviewed, with the details of the journal publication clearly identified on the article, but it may not be in an officially published form. On top of this, corresponding developments with “open data” are talking place, making another form of GL immediately and widely available for new forms of collaboration and reanalysis. Governments and the courts are posting reams of material online. The Wikipedia and the blogosphere represent grass-root efforts to reshape the basis of participation in human knowledge. What has been made public by being published is no longer a black and white issue. There is still plenty of room for judgments and distinctions to be made about the quality, type, and nature of this knowledge. This growing openness around what is known assists in the very assessment and verification. I, for one, do not see grey skies ahead, but something brighter.


  1. Just for the record, I think I asked John to write on ‘publishing.’ The more elegant and informative topic of “the open access movement and the changing sense of what it means to publish in relation to scholarly inquiry.” is his own.