The Next Step in Open Access Publishing

In the wake of the demonstration against Elsevier, Chris Boulton and I recently authored a brief piece discussing some of the surrounding issues that are getting more widely known due to the academic outcry. In the days since this became major news, the controversy has spread beyond the walls of academia, and others are starting to take note of the obviously problematic relationship between academics and the publishing industry. Even The Economist has taken note of the uprising, and although the term “Academic Spring” is, in my opinion, an unfortunate choice of words, their interest in academic publishing indicates that others are becoming aware of the impending “revolution” in our ancient and outdated system.

Considering the current budget crisis, this comes as no surprise. Most University Libraries pay over  60% of their materials budget on serial publications. My institution, the University of Massachusetts Amherst spends about three-quarters of their materials budget on serials. It comes as no surprise that they have been encouraging Open Access publishing with their ScholarWorks initiative, now with over 28,000 papers in their repository (with nearly 1.4 million downloads). Of course, UMass is not alone in these endeavors, as many Higher Education libraries are on the same page (or at least will be soon).

The two largest associations in my own discipline, Communication Studies, the International Communication Association (ICA) and the National Communication Association (NCA), have recently released statements regarding the “future” of academic publishing. ICA President Larry Gross outlined some of the devious techniques employed by certain members of the publishing industry, highlighting how our own systems continue to prop up these broken models, perpetuating the cycle.

NCA recently spent an entire issue dedicated to academic publishing in its newsletter / magazine “Spectra.” This issue engages the larger issue with publishing in general, and not just journals. Ironically enough, I cannot link to it because it is print-only (or at least not available to non-members). Pam Shockley-Zalabak, the Chancellor of the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, reflects that the days when online journal publications are not “counted” are “clearly” over, which is refreshing and hopeful. As “the print journal and the scholarly hard copy book will be less a mandate for the future” she believes that “the scholarly book is at risk.” However it seems that only these so-called “dead tree” publications are at risk – and not because of the cost of dead trees but merely due to the intervention of publishers, which in digital distribution and print-on-demand world, seem less necessary every day. In short, digital distribution has, after many years, become a viable alternative and is quickly reshaping the way that academia is thinking about knowledge dissemination.

What About the Students?

All of this talk about academic publishing often skirts around the main reasons for the existence of the academy: the production and dissemination of knowledge. We research to increase knowledge, and we publish and teach to disseminate knowledge. Of course there is no reason to produce knowledge without the dissemination of knowledge, so we should be doubly concerned with dissemination. The question of access remains primary in this concern, leading us to reconsider the current model of extra-mediated publication and distribution as quite inefficient, to say the least. Of course, journal and academic book publication are only two of the ways that publishers get in the way. There is a slightly less publicized “revolution” happening in the educational publication market, that of textbooks.

Recently, Washington State passed a bill encouraging using and developing Open Educational Resources (OERs) for their K-12 school systems. From the linked article: “This legislature has declared that the status quo — $130M / year for expensive, paper-only textbooks that are, on average, 7-11 years out of date — is unacceptable. WA policy makers instead decided their 1 million+ elementary students deserve better and they have acted.”

Of course we do not need to wait for a government mandate to use and develop OERs for our classes. Textbooks are expensive at every level of education, and in Higher Education they can be prohibitively expensive. Textbook costs are a significant part of the overall cost Higher Education, significantly impacting questions of knowledge access. However, textbook costs can be curtailed quite easily as long as we choose not to participate in the game. There are already many resources available online, including Creative Commons’ OER repository.

More resources are needed for many different disciplines, ones that we can share and remix to best fit our specific style of teaching and needs for our individual classes. MIT, Yale, and the Khan Academy have made OpenCourseWare quite famous with their offerings of free education, but many institutions have, understandably, been hesitant to jump feet-first into this type of “fully open” model, whether for financial or structural reasons (personally I often deal with material in my classes that work best with discussions rather than recorded lectures). However, there is another option between “free” education and sticking with expensive textbooks that drive up costs: employing OERs as substitution for pricey textbooks. Since time and money is always a concern (publishing a textbook can be quite lucrative), institutional support is incredibly helpful. UMass is lucky to have such support, and over the past two semesters has invested a total of $26,000 to give 21 faculty members grants for replacing high-cost textbooks with OERs and library resources in 30 courses. These small $1k microgrants (per course) have impacted 1,700 students with an estimated total savings of $207,000 in only two semesters. These savings keep adding up, as Provost James V. Staros, a major proponent of these OER microgrants, remarks:  “these savings recur each time the courses are offered, and directly benefit the very real and very tight budgets of our undergraduate and graduate students.” This is a wonderful middle ground that many educators and administrators can get behind, one that encourages the production of knowledge while keeping student costs down, ensuring access to the best possible resources.

These OERs created through these grants are, of course, not just for UMass students. They are accessible to anyone, anywhere. Charlie Schweik, a professor in the Department of Environmental Conservation, has had his OER lab manual downloaded 72 times since it was added in November 2011, and not just by UMass students.

If our true goal is the dissemination of knowledge, than Charlie Schweik has the right idea. His lab manual can be used by anyone who wishes to use it as a free download (he even has arranged to have it printed for students in a spiral bound book at a low cost). If only other disciplines were so lucky to have such a great, free, resource. This should get us all thinking about the incredible resources that we could share with our students and each other if we all contributed to OERs rather than selling our textbooks to publishers. This should get us thinking about access to knowledge, and about how we can use digital distribution and on-demand printing rather than relying on outdated distribution methods mediated by “dead tree” publishers. And when we are done thinking, we should get involved – using OERs, creating OERs, and lobbying our administrations to support these endeavors. For more information about OERs and other Open Access education initiatives, check out Open Education Week, happening this week.

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