Share on Facebook and Twitter for a chance to win SFU 50th anniversary swag!


Research as a Public Good



Research as a Public Good


Research as a Public Good

The Public Knowledge Project was borne from the belief that knowledge access should be a human right.

It was 1998, still the early days of the web, when professor John Willinsky (then at the University of British Columbia) was collaborating with The Vancouver Sun on a special series about computers in schools. He was dismayed to discover that the public could not freely access research studies germane to the project, due to publisher policies. As an educator, he believed that access to knowledge should be a human right, yet as a researcher he was unwittingly signing away this right as a condition of being published. He began to advocate for research and scholarship that is “free-to-read” (now commonly known as “open access”) and established the Public Knowledge Project (PKP) to explore the vast, untapped potential of online and knowledge management technologies to facilitate knowledge circulation.

A grant awarded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC) in 2000 kicked off the research and development that led to the launch of novel web-based journal and conference management systems the following year. This original $183,000 grant has been leveraged to attract over $4.5 million in funding to expand the project’s international reach. The PKP’s Open Journal Systems (OJS) is now the open source platform of choice worldwide, and it offers a wide range of information, tools and services to facilitate open access publishing.

The PKP established institutional anchors at Stanford University in California and, in 2005, at the SFU Library. Brian Owen, PKP Managing Director and Associate University Librarian, heads the team responsible for software development and support, PKP Publishing Services, and other administrative activities. They also continue to refine and expand the PKP platform. For instance, new projects are underway to automate the markup of scholarly content for enhanced readability, and to explore the feasibility of establishing publishing cooperatives to facilitate the transition from subscription to open access models of scholarly publishing.

Recent estimates suggest that as much as 50 per cent of published academic research is now freely available online,” says Owen. “PKP has played a key role in that shift—over 9,000 scholarly journals use PKP’s open source Open Journal Systems as their online publishing platform. Academic libraries collect and provide access to all forms of published knowledge and I’d like to think the SFU Library was way ahead of the curve when it joined forces with PKP over 10 years ago to be directly and actively involved in efforts to make content openly and widely available.”

The PKP’s active research agenda looks at broader areas of scholarly communication and education. For example, Willinsky led a National Science Foundation-funded project which examined the impact of the National Institutes of Health’s Public Access Policy on how physicians and public health staff utilize free-to-read university research. He supervised the doctoral work of Juan Pablo Alperin (now an assistant professor in SFU’s Master of Publishing program) on the substantial use of open access research in Latin America, and is currently completing a historical study going back to the Middle Ages on how learning has affected the concept of intellectual property.

The PKP has not only increased knowledge mobilization via public engagement with university research but is recognized today as a key enabler of the global open access movement.

“I still thank my lucky stars that the SFU Library reached out to partner on this project in 2005,” says Willinsky. “It has been such a pleasure and inspiration to work with Brian Owen and the PKP team in engaging the world to make research far more of a public resource.” 


John Willinsky is Khosla Family Professor of Education, Stanford University and Professor (Part-Time) Publishing Studies, SFU and Distinguished Scholar in Residence, SFU Library. John started PKP in 1998 at the University of British Columbia in an effort to create greater public and global access to research and scholarship through the use of new publishing technologies. He is the author of, among other books, Empire of Words: The Reign of the OED (Princeton, 1994); Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End (Minnesota, 1998); Technologies of Knowing (Beacon 2000); and The Access Principle: The Case for Open Access to Research and Scholarship (MIT Press, 2006).

Brian Owen is the Associate University Librarian for Library Technology Services and Special Collections at SFU Library; and Managing Director for the Public Knowledge Project (PKP). He is an Associate with SFU’s Canadian Centre for Studies in Publishing, and SFU’s Master of Publishing Program. Much of his activity at the library revolves around the development of open source software (reSearcher and the PKP suite) and the provision of hosting and support services for sites using this software. In 2007, Brian received the Award for Distinguished Service to Research Librarianship from the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL).

Q & A with Brian Owen

If you could sum up the value of university research in a word, what would it be?


SFU bills itself as "Canada's most engaged research university." How does the PKP exemplify this spirt of engagement?

When John Willinsky started PKP, his primary objective was to make academic knowledge more easily and widely accessible beyond the borders of the university. That has been the driving force behind everything that PKP has undertaken since the early 2000s and it has appropriately manifested itself through the activity of developing open source software that also enables open access publishing. 

SFU has much to celebrate on its 50th anniversary. Looking ahead to our 100th anniversary in 2065, what do you think SFU will be most notable for?

I attended SFU during its first decade. At the time, it was rightfully acknowledged as a "radical" university and while I'm very fond of that term I think SFU has also moved beyond it in so many positive ways. In 50 short years,  the university has established itself by all of the traditional measures applied to learning and research, while also remaining very innovative and continuing to take risks–PKP wouldn't have flourished here otherwise. I hope SFU continues to be viewed in that manner when the 100th anniversary rolls around.