Some Thoughts on Willinsky’s In Democracy and Education

In Democracy and Education: The Missing Link May Be Ours, John Willinsky (2002) makes the case for free and open access to scholarly research in education. Under the current paradigm, publishers, whose revenue is in the billions of dollars (Stevenson, 2010, para. 3), control most academic and scientific research publication. Interestingly, Willinksy predicates his case not on financial grounds, but on the grounds that open access can better serve democracy through the creation of an informed public.

Most criticism directed at the academic publishing industry today is based on the high subscription fees charged to universities and the proposition that researchers are unable to access their own published works without a subscription (Stevenson, 2010). It should also be noted that the authors and reviewers of academic papers are typically not paid for their work. Instead, they earn prestige in their field, which can play a role in gaining tenure and winning research grants (Opal, 2013).

Despite the current furor over the control and economics of academic publishing, Willinsky believes that by developing tools to improve public access to educational research, the public will become informed stakeholders in shaping education policy and directing future research. It is only through open access to research and ideas, that Dewey’s aims in education and democracy can be furthered.

Willinsky’s assertion that open access can benefit the general public simply by the virtue of being open can be illustrated with the case of Jack Andraka. After the death of a family friend, 14-year-old Andraka was curious to understand pancreatic cancer and so he chose to make it the subject of a school science fair (Andraka, 2013). His attempts to access scientific research were often thwarted by expensive article fees (and a mother unwilling to continuously pay for articles Andraka purchased, downloaded, and then tossed into the recycling bin). With a little clever problem-solving, Andraka managed to access journal articles for free, often by emailing the authors directly. His hard work paid off. Through his efforts and a little help from a researcher at Johns Hopkins University, Andraka invented an early test for pancreatic cancer and won a $75 000 scholarship from the Intel Science Fair (Bleier, 2013).

Despite the challenges posed by the current scholarly publishing system, Andraka was successful because he never gave up. He was not deterred by expensive journal articles and managed to outwit the current system and access articles for free. With open access, students, who may not be as bold or determined to succeed as Andraka, will be able to access the research they need. Indeed, this is the point that Willinsky makes. Willinsky asserts that we must test the idea that open access to research will have a beneficial impact on society’s “participation in civic and educational forums” (Willinsky, 2002, p. 13). Clearly, in Andraka’s case, it could have made his efforts easier—and less expensive for his mother.

Of course, all this assumes that the individual is capable of understanding the research as published. Certainly, Andraka is singular among his peers. Few teenagers are inclined to seek out academic papers to help them understand real world problems. Scholarly papers are not typically written for the general public, let alone teenagers. The audience for research is usually other researchers. Willinsky (2002) touches upon this briefly by stating that open access may encourage “faculty and students to give greater thought to writing for this expanded audience” (Willinsky, 2002, p. 8).

While Willinsky’s position is admirable, and according to Dewey, moral (Willinsky, 2002, p.6), the crux of the problem—how to bring about meaningful change to the world of academic publishing in order to accomplish his vision—is not addressed. Part of the problem lies in the prestige that comes with publication in an established journal. Unless publication to open access databases carry an equivalent amount of cachet as the more reputable journals, many authors will still default to the dominant traditional system of publishing. Willinsky acknowledges this. Any new system of publishing will need to be “sensitive to the career aspirations of contributors” (Willinsky, 2002, p. 13).

Willinsky, and those who believe as he does, are up against an entrenched business model and the culture of academic research and publishing. Neither will be easily changed. Yet, Willinsky draws inspiration from traditional news media corporations and their struggle for relevancy in the Internet age. Willinsky considers the “disenchantment with the press as democracy’s great hope” (Willinsky, 2002, p. 11).

The Internet and its ability to democratize the sharing of knowledge has brought about much change and upheaval in our traditional knowledge-governing institutions. This process is still in its infancy and the results of Willinsky’s grand experiment to bring about change in public forums through the open access of knowledge and research has yet to reach fruition. This change will not come easy. As long as their are economic interests at stake—in this case, the billions of dollars in revenue generated through academic publishing—the road to open access will be long and arduous.


Andraka, J. (2013, February 18). Why science journal paywalls have to go. PLOS Blogs: The Student Blog. Retrieved from:

Bleier, E. (2013, January 29). Jack andraka, 15, develops early ‘dip stick’ test for pancreatic cancer. Opposing Views. Retrieved from:

Opal, P. (2013, March 26). Don’t let the dream of open access journals die. The Atlantic. Retrieved from:

Stevenson, A. (2010, November 29). The economic case for open access in academic publishing. Ars Technica. Retrieved from:

Willinsky, J. (2002). Democracy and education: The missing link may be ours. Harvard Educational Review, 72(3), 1-21. Retrieved from:

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1 Response to Some Thoughts on Willinsky’s In Democracy and Education

  1. Amanda Bourdon says:

    I think that Willinsky’s arguments connect to those of Neil Postman who writes about the major problems associated with allowing technologies to invade and take over our lives. Willinsky’s views on academic publishing being important to inform the public coincides with Postman’s (1992, 4) argument for moving into the future with our ‘eyes wide open.’ Here, Postman would describe the ‘winners’ as a publishing houses who gain mass profits from producing journals which the public must pay to have access to. The ‘losers’ in this case would include the scholars who write the articles for the journals and the public who remain in the dark by not having free access to these publications. Very interesting connections between Willinsky and Postman!

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