Freedom of access versus maintenance of quality

“Professional control, ownership and use of professional literature is a matter of most serious concern,” George Gould, editor of the Philadelphia Medical Journal, wrote in Suggestions to Medical Writers in 1900. With the growth of open-access publishing, open education can learn from the history of the struggle against the monetization of knowledge.

Current UMSU president Jakob Sanderson, and his slate that swept this year’s elections, campaigned and won on a platform that included advocating for the university’s greater usage of open educational resources (OER) — which substitute public domain resources for expensive textbooks. During Sanderson’s first term as president he secured a promise from the U of M for new classes to consider OER before requiring students to purchase a traditional textbook.

If UMSU truly cares about the future and quality of education for students at the U of M, continuing to blindly advocate for much-needed OER while failing to consider the basics of the centuries-old knowledge-access debate may threaten the quality of education.

While the definition of OER, a concept originating alongside the communications network-based internet 25 years ago in 1994, varies, they can — like the name implies — be defined as material published under an open license, such as a Creative Commons (CC) license, or material in the public domain. They are free to use and share. But not necessarily free to modify, if published under a CC no derivatives license, or free to be repurposed for profit — neither to restrict access nor to become sustainably updated, revised and improved by means of a small revenue stream — if published under a CC non-commercial license.

Professional control — either by academic societies that cover publishing expenses by membership and subscription fees or by corporate publishing houses with a for-profit business model — of research publications and educational resources is both good and bad.

Of course, it puts paywalls in place, such as the fees charged by Elsevier — the world’s largest academic publishing company, with the recognizable logo of an old man picking grapes from a vine entwining a tree. For a Canadian institution to access 316 priced journals for a year, Elsevier’s list price is US$396,622.

In the past year, these huge prices have left scholars at research institutions in Germany and Sweden and most recently in Norway and the University of California system without subscription packages to the newest work published in Elsevier’s approximately 2,500 journals. This is the result of universities and Elsevier becoming increasingly unable to reach agreements on both price and open-access.

While access is still available to individual articles through interlibrary loan, the delay in accessing published work slows research and the creation of educational resources, which delays content creators and authors access to the newest and most “cutting edge” ideas, advances, results and insights.

But professional control also ensures quality, for the entire business model depends upon the ability and expectation to publish consistently rigorous scholarship.

Professional control also means archival access and storage. For instance, the Elsevier family published the work of Galileo Galilei in 1635. That book is still archived today in the offices of the modern Elsevier company. It also means maintaining and updating the systems necessary to publish and archive hundreds of thousands of books and articles every year.

Those advocating for OER and for the resources to promote their creation must also give thought to how to ensure all those resources will be sustainable when more institutions begin to fall out with the publishing giants. A possible consequence if publishing giants revoke access to their resources as universities embrace OER could be a deterioration in the quality of educational resources if they begin to become outdated, with resources provided only for their creation and not their revision, or if no plan is in place for archiving and disseminating.

Ownership comes in many forms. Traditionally, publishing houses require authors to transfer copyright to the publisher. Therefore, publishers own the content of books and many research journals and then require the user to pay for the privilege of access.

With OER, the author retains the copyright themselves. This novel idea in the history of academia — CC licenses were first introduced about 16 years ago — presents a change in thinking for authors who may not yet realize the ability to protect course materials and books under open licenses. Advocacy alone, on the basis of student debt, is not likely to be enough to convert authors of materials to open publishing models given the long history and what is for many a long experience with more closed models.

Copyright retention at this scale truly is a paradigm shift. It changes how knowledge is consolidated, how knowledge is disseminated, how knowledge is monetized.

For knowledge will continue to be monetized, despite the advocacy work done by UMSU or any other group. Should publishing houses take on OER, the costs of publishing may be shifted to the author, like they are for open-access research articles. Elsevier’s fees can be in the range of US$150 to US$5,000 for a single article. For larger educational resources intended for a broader audience and requiring more work for editing, production and publication, the fees for each individual resource may be expected to be even higher.

This puts open-access publishing beyond the reach of many qualified would-be authors who may want to take advantage of production, promotion and marketing channels available through corporate publishers.

UMSU’s argument to lobby provincial and federal governments to incentivize OER creation at universities through “start-up” funding may promote the short-term creation of resources but does nothing to promote their archiving, revision and continued creation.

UMSU’s proposal that “the government should look for ways to fund content creators themselves” runs the risk of the government taking on the role of a publishing house. And that would be fruit ripe for the cutting by a future government because governments are not in the academic publishing business, and that business can easily be seen as education subsidies in eras when university funding is being cut. The result would be either privatization or cessation of the government’s involvement in academic publishing.

Publicly funded OER might end up for sale to a publishing house putting course materials back behind the guarded walls of textbook publishers.

The use of these materials is the most important matter of historical and current concern to consider in this situation.

Educational resources are meant to be used and are expected to be current.

Simply advocating for increased uptake and usage neglects the complexities of professional control and ownership that must also be planned for, as the balance — from the end user’s, the student’s and the researcher’s perspective — shifts from expensive access to open to all.

When planning advocacy efforts and taking on the necessary initiatives to make education more affordable and accessible, UMSU’s actions must be focused on the sustainable long term.

Otherwise it is advocacy for the benefit of the resumés of the UMSU executives. At best, it changes little for students.

At worst, it threatens the quality of the education of those the union protects.