from the Library of Maura

The Fox Guarding the Henhouse: Thinking about OERs and Textbook Affordability

March 31st, 2017 · No Comments

I am on sabbatical this semester, and one of the things I’m working on is a qualitative study of undergraduate attitudes and practices around their course reading. I’m interviewing 10 students each at 3 CUNY colleges to learn more about how they get access to their course reading, what their process is when they read, and how they prioritize and manage their reading assignments. A preliminary literature search last year as I was proposing this project revealed lots of sources about strategies to encourage students to do the reading, and recent reports by the Student PIRGs among others have discussed the link between high (and increasing) textbook costs and student access to course readings. But I wanted to learn more about the nuances in students’ reading practices from students themselves.

I’m nearly finished with interviews though I still have transcription, coding, and analysis to go. But one particular data point that many* students shared has been nagging at me so much that I’m not willing to wait to write about it: the requirement in some courses for students to purchase access to an online bundled textbook/homework platform in order to take the class. Some of these platforms include additional tutorials or other curricular materials. Some offer a few pricing tiers, e.g. a lower cost for homework only than for homework + etextbook than for homework + etextbook + print textbook. All are required, that is to say that students must submit their homework via the platform in order to participate in the class.

* How many? I’m not sure yet, I haven’t analyzed the data! But more than one.

This is not a completely new thing in textbook publishing, and indeed is the topic of a PIRG report from last fall (which is on my to read list). And I’m fairly far away from my own college experience at this point, too, so I’m willing to concede a little bit of the fear of the newfangled in my reaction. But I’m frankly horrified by the potential for increasing reliance on these textbook/homework platforms. Among my many concerns:

– Ultimately, some students will not be able to take classes in which these platforms are the only way to access their required homework/assignments, because they cannot afford to buy access to those platforms. This is especially relevant at CUNY, where 58.3% of our undergraduates receive federal Pell Grants and 38.5% have an annual household income of less than $20,000.

– College students are (and have ever been) savvy about getting their course materials. I’m hearing a wide range of strategies from the students I interviewed, from buying their books used at online or physical booksellers, to buying from other students, to borrowing from friends or classmates, to renting an online or print textbook. There’s no way to borrow a homework platform code from your friend, or to sell the code to another student after you’ve finished the class.

– Many college libraries don’t offer course texts for their students, but at CUNY most of us do. At City Tech we have some (not all) textbooks on reserve for in-library use and we move older editions into the circulating collections for students to check out for longer periods. There is no way for the library to offer access to homework platform codes, since they are tied individually to each student.

I know, I know, publishers gotta publish, and capitalism exists. But textbook prices have risen well above the rate of inflation, and with the rise of open educational resources (OER) it’s clear that publishers are exploring alternative ways to keep their profits up. Earlier this week I had an exchange on Twitter with a few library colleagues about a column on Inside Higher Ed that suggests that OERs are not nearly as effective as are personalized learning systems (another flavor of textbook platform). The author posits that:

[I]t is misguided to assume that the difference between open educational resources and paid resources is merely one of cost. […] The reality is that there are simply no open resources that are as flexible, reliable or impactful as the newest generation of education resources.

I was not surprised to see that the author is on the advisory council of a large textbook publishing corporation. I would counter that the negative impact on graduation rates when a student cannot take a course required in their major because they cannot afford to pay for the textbook platform code is far worse than the lack of personalization features in freely-available OERs. Our students are literally paying the price, and it’s a price that many of them cannot afford.

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Making a Pledge

October 23rd, 2011 · 8 Comments

I’ve been an open access publishing advocate ever since I first wrapped my head around what’s often termed the scholarly communication crisis. To briefly sketch out an admittedly complex issue: researchers write and peer review articles, journals publish them (without payment to the researchers), and libraries buy back the journals at prices that have increased a staggering amount over the past 30 years. I was late to the OA advocacy game, and am somewhat ashamed to admit my utter ignorance of the economics of scholarly publishing when I was completing my degree in anthropology many years ago. But when I went back for my degree in library and information science it suddenly became so clear that the current subscription journal-based system of publishing academic research is not working anymore, not for the libraries with shrinking budgets, not for the researchers who want to share their work with as wide an audience as possible, and certainly not for the taxpaying-public who are funding many research studies yet cannot access the articles about their results.

Open Access Week begins tomorrow, the 5th year for this international advocacy event. In honor of OA Week I’d like to share my personal open access pledge. It’s not original — lots of other scholars and researchers are doing it, from institutions like Harvard and Kansas State and Oberlin, to library faculty members at Oregon State University and Gustavus Adolphus College, to individuals like danah boyd and Jason Baird Jackson. It’s a small step, but I’m convinced it’s the right thing to do, both for my own research and my participation in the broader scholarly community.

1. I will not submit articles I have authored or co-authored to any closed, subscription-based journals.

2. I will not undertake peer review for any closed, subscription-based journals.

3. I will not join the editorial board for any closed, subscription-based journals.

4. I will not accept the editorship of any closed, subscription-based journals.

5. I will make my own research and scholarship available online wherever possible.

As I was tooling around online tonight I found a nifty website called Open Access Pledge where everyone can make a pledge to support open access publishing. If you’re interested, head on over and sign up, it only takes a moment. And get ready for Open Access Week: there are lots of great events right here at CUNY — check out the Open Access @ CUNY blog for more details.

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Big News in Scholarly Publishing

June 11th, 2010 · No Comments

By now everyone’s probably heard about the storm a’brewing in scholarly publishing this week. I don’t want to repeat what’s been very ably said in many other spaces on the internets, but as an open access advocate I couldn’t let the week end without at least collecting together some of the high points of the discussion.

In brief, the University of California system libraries are resisting outrageous price increases for the Nature Publishing Group’s scholarly journals. This situation is, sadly, a familiar one for academic librarians, and this is not the first time that a large consortial group has pushed back. What’s new is the scope of the resistance: unless NPG comes down in price, U Cal faculty are being asked (among other things) to decline to peer review or submit articles to NPG journals.

This is huge, and a huge step in the right direction. As a librarian, a faculty member and a researcher I am absolutely thrilled to see this happening, and I’ll be following the situation closely as it evolves.

Here are some great places to go for more info:

  • The Chronicle of Higher Ed‘s article U. of California Tries Just Saying No to Rising Journal Costs provides a thorough introduction to the boycott.
  • Dorothea Salo, Institutional Repository Librarian at the University of Wisconsin who writes a fantastic blog about scholarly communication and open access (among other things) over at The Book of Trogool, has been covering the story since early in the week. (It was actually a tweet from Salo that first tipped me off to this situation late Tuesday night.)
  • Bethany Nowviskie, Director of Digital Research & Scholarship at the University of Virginia Library, wrote a great post called Fight Club Soap that, among other things, includes a powerful discussion of the relationship between scholarly journal pricing and scholarly monograph publication.

Good stuff, all. Go read it!

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Thoughts on Open Access

November 22nd, 2009 · No Comments

Last month for Open Access Week our library hosted a program on OA scholarly journal publishing for faculty, complete with spiffy orange buttons (suitable for Halloween wearing, too!). It was a great discussion, but since I’ve written about it elsewhere I won’t repeat it here.

I’ve found myself mulling over open access off and on ever since. Most of the time when I think about OA publishing it’s about academic journals, but of course publishing’s not a monolith. There are lots of materials relevant to academic work that are published in traditional ways, and there will likely be different models needed to successfully convert them to OA.

Scholarly Journals:
Discussion about journals seems to make up most of the conversation about open access scholarly publishing, and in some ways it’s the easiest transformation to imagine. Partly that’s because there are already longstanding examples of well-respected, peer-reviewed OA scholarly journals (yes, First Monday, I’m looking at you). But I also think that the economics of scholarly journal publishing favor open access in the long run. It’s an old saw that bears repeating: as scholars, we are compensated by our institutions for responsibilities that include performing original research (often funded by grants which we must work to acquire), writing up and disseminating the results of that research, and serving as peer-reviewers and editors of scholarly journals. In the traditional publishing model we then give our copyright away to the publishers, who sell those journals back to our libraries. Our institutions pay twice for the results of our research.

There are a number of different funding models for open access scholarly journals. University and college presses or libraries can host journals using the free and open source Open Journal Systems. Journals might also charge author fees; researchers can apply for grant funding to defray the fees or institutions can subsidize these costs for their faculty. Many open access journals are currently published using one of these models, and I’m sure the number will only increase.

Open access textbooks are a little trickier, though I’m a big proponent of them for a variety of reasons. Textbooks are incredibly expensive, both for students and for libraries. We buy a fair number of textbooks in my library and it’s so frustrating to have to get new editions every few years which may not even be all that different from the old editions (but of course we have to buy the edition that faculty are using).

Open access textbook/course material repositories are springing up all over the internet recently, definitely a positive development. I know that many faculty write textbooks and derive some income from them. But I think there’s more to be gained by sharing our curricular materials, especially at public universities. Freely-available textbook modules could be peer reviewed, and the community of researchers could discuss and refine them. I think the Community College Consortium for Open Educational Resources says it best: “When educators pool their expertise to create a culture of shared knowledge, everyone benefits.”

Scholarly Monographs:
Many of the same publication issues for textbooks also apply to scholarly books, especially in that researchers do profit from their sale. But many monographs don’t have a huge print run, and university and other scholarly presses have felt the squeeze of tightened budgets recently, too.

A hybrid print/digital model might be a good strategy for scholarly monographs. Earlier this year the University of Michigan and the Open Humanities Press announced a partnership to publish a series of scholarly monographs. Digital versions of the books will be freely available online, but paperback versions will also be available for sale. Recent advances in print-on-demand technology makes this distribution model much more feasible than previously.

Ultimately I’m in favor of open access for most academic materials. As a researcher, I’m eager for lots of other scholars to read my work. As a public employee, I’m sensitive to the fact that taxpayer money helps pay my salary. And as a teacher, I’d like my students to have access to a wide range of quality information from many sources. Open access publishing encourages the dissemination of scholarship to the widest possible audience, to the great benefit of researchers, students, and the public.

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Interesting Info from the Interwebs

June 19th, 2009 · 1 Comment

I swear that this isn’t going to turn into Maura’s Copyright Blog, but a couple of copyright-ish things have crossed my desk(top) recently and it seemed selfish not to share:

1. A coalition of student groups across the U.S. recently released the Student Statement on The Right to Research. The statement asserts that “scholarly knowledge is part of the common wealth of humanity,” and argues for open access to scholarly research (as opposed to a subscription-based model for journal publishing). It’s great to see students involved in the open access movement. The footnotes on the statement feature lots of great reads, too.

2. I’m sure many have seen this already, but just in case not, here’s marketing guru Seth Godin’s rant against the high prices of college textbooks. A quick, punchy read (just like you’d expect from a marketer), and it’s hard to disagree with him, too. I’d add an admittedly obvious note to the list of impracticalities: when libraries buy textbooks (as we may do since it can be difficult for our students to afford them), we’re left with “expired” content when the next edition is published as well as the need to buy the new edition.

3. This week’s Information Week has an article about a recent paper out of the Harvard Business School that attempts to unpack the complexities of copyright protection and the entertainment industry. The authors suggest that, while sales have fallen over the past decade, the number of new works (music, film, books) being produced has actually risen, as have revenues from ancillary streams like concerts. Thus, they conclude that file-sharing “has not discouraged creative artists from producing new works.”

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And in Other News…

May 11th, 2009 · 2 Comments

Last week was a big one for higher ed tech and publishing news. As I’m sure everyone’s heard by now, Blackboard enveloped yet another of its competitors and Amazon released the new Kindle. I’m kind of happy about the first item — I tend to agree with the Twitter comments spotlighted on Inside Higher Ed that this move will only feed the anti-Blackboard fires. And while the new Kindle looks promising for textbooks, I admit to being a bit concerned about its high price, esp. for our students @ CUNY.

But the news that really grabbed my attention was the revelation that Elsevier published a fake journal, the Australasian Journal of Bone and Joint Medicine, financed by pharma giant Merck and devoted to shilling for Merck products. It’s not the first time something like this has happened, and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

This news is depressing for many reasons, but the pedagogical implications are uppermost in my mind right now. One of my responsibilities as a library professor is to try and strengthen our students’ information literacy: finding sources for their coursework, evaluating and selecting the most appropriate sources, and using those sources ethically (think plagiarism + copyright). For many of their papers and projects students are required to use scholarly journal articles, and I try to spend as much time as I can in a library session unpacking the differences between scholarly journals and newspapers/magazines and explaining peer review. And in many ways fake journals, like high-profile plagiarism cases, just make it harder to convince students to value the scholarly literature for their coursework.

On the other hand, at least one librarian has pointed out that perhaps we can use this depressing revelation as a teachable moment. So I guess I’ll add it to the list of strange/scary-but-true cases that we can use to emphasize the importance of digging a little deeper, paying attention and critical thinking.

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Open: 1; Closed: 0

May 3rd, 2009 · 2 Comments

Many librarians are big fans of open access publishing. There are lots of reasons for this, but that’s a post for another day.

This morning I added yet another mark to my academic journals scorecard on the open access side (vs. a closed, subscription-based model). You might have heard a story in the news a couple of weeks ago that suggested that the use of Facebook by college students is correlated with lower grades. A PhD student at Ohio State University presented the results of this study at the American Educational Research Association meeting in San Diego, the media picked up on the story, and suddenly it was national news.

This week’s issue of First Monday, a longstanding open access, peer reviewed journal, includes a paper that purports to refute the abovementioned study, a response from the OSU researcher, and a response from the paper’s authors. I highly recommend these articles — they’re a great read.

I know that this is nothing new in science-related fields, in which open access journals facilitate rapid dissemination of research all the time. But this is the first time that I’ve seen it happen in the non-science disciplines with which I’m much more familiar. And while I admit that I find the refuting research to be more plausible, I’m most excited to see the current discussion and debate over these studies, discussion made possible by the open, accessible nature of the publication format.

Score 1 for open!

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