I am generally a poor speller, but even I understand that there are two Os in MOOC. So for added clarity, let me state up front that this post will focus on the first O — the one that stands for “open.” But I want to get to the discussion about that O in a slightly round about (pun intended) way.
Let’s start with an insightful article from the recent issue of Nature that contained several pieces about open access. The one that caught my attention is “Open Access: The true cost of science publishing.” The author, Richard Van Noorden, provides a wealth of detail, and a very even-handed analysis, about the varying cost of publishing an academic article. He is hampered, unfortunately, by on-going secrecy on the topic. Neither Nature, which is publishing the article, nor PLoS would not talk with him about actual costs. Nevertheless, there is a great deal of information here, and it all points to the conclusion that logic alone would have suggested — open access publishing, especially by non-profit entities, is much the more efficient way to disseminate scholarship.
One thing Van Noorden is able to show very clearly is that almost all open access publication charges are lower than the average per-article revenue that traditional publishers earn. The difference can be as much as between a $300 cost per OA article and the average $5000 revenue per toll-access one. The difference can be accounted for in one of two ways –large corporate profit margins or inefficient publishing methods. Whichever is the case, however, it is clear the open access is the better option. These lower costs are among the many reasons that open access provides a much greater benefit to academia than the traditional, pre-Internet system can.
Inspite of this documented good news about OA, however, the article ends on a discouraging note, or perhaps it is better to say a note of frustration. Open access is obviously growing every year, but it is not growing as quickly, except where it is mandated, as it’s obvious superiority would suggest. So at the end, the article leaves us to speculate on the incentives faculty authors have for choosing, or not choosing, OA.
And that brings me back to the “open” in Massively Open Online Courses. The growing popularity of MOOCs, and their potential, parallel to that of open access itself, to revolutionize higher education, is a new and powerful incentive for scholarly authors to rethink access to their publications.
The fundamental driver behind the growth of MOOCs is the desire to expand the scope of our educational mission and to reach a global community of students we could not otherwise serve. Seen in that light, the “open” in MOOC is key. Part of our commitment as institutions participating in MOOCs is to try very hard not to erect financial barriers to participation in these courses. We resist the normal urge to require textbook purchase, for example. Our instructors are encourage to recommend but not require books for purchase (with the result, BTW, that sales for the merely-recommended books nearly always skyrocket). But this commitment to keeping the courses open for students also means that we look for an increasing amount of open content for teaching.
When our instructors want to provide readings for students taking a MOOC, we generally pursue one of two options. Either we negotiate with publishers, who are slowly figuring out the marketing advantage they gain by allowing small excerpts of books and textbooks to be made available freely, or we look for OA content. Unfortunately, the negotiation option is slow and labor-intensive; often we must explain the purpose and the conditions over and over again, to ever-shifting groups of officials, before we can get a decision. So open access is ever more important, because more efficient, for our MOOC instructors and their students.
One story will illustrate this growing interest in open access. A faculty member who was recently preparing to teach his first MOOC wanted his students to be able to read several of his own articles. When we asked his publisher for permission on his behalf, it was denied. A rude awakening for our professor, but also an opportunity to talk about open access. As it turned out, all of the articles were published in journals that allowed the author to deposit his final manuscripts, and this author had them all. So we uploaded those post-prints, and he had persistent, no-cost links to provide to the 80,000 students who were registered for his course. An eye-opener for the author, a missed opportunity for the publisher, and a small triumph for our OA repository. Enough of a triumph that this professor has begun asking colleagues if they could deposit post-prints of their own articles in the repositories at their institutions so that he can use those for his MOOC students as well.
So when we are counting up incentives for open access publishing, whether Gold or Green, lets remember that the massive opportunity that is represented by MOOCs is also a new reason to embrace open access.