This blogpost is a co-production by Ben Janssen (OpenEd Consult) and me. It is translated from a Dutch version, slightly adapted.
Two weeks ago cOAlition S was launched by 11 national research funders (including NWO, the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research), with the support of the European Commission and the European Research Council (ERC). In their words (source):
…an initiative to make full and immediate Open Access to research publications a reality. It is built around Plan S, which consists of one target and 10 principles.
cOAlition S signals the commitment to implement, by 1 January 2020, the necessary measures to fulfil its main principle: “By 2020 scientific publications that result from research funded by public grants provided by participating national and European research councils and funding bodies, must be published in compliant Open Access Journals or on compliant Open Access Platforms.”
This initiative has rightly received a great deal of publicity and is generally regarded as a major step towards achieving the goal of Open Science, where research publications become immediately available free of charge to all interested parties, without conditions. After all, growth in science is rooted in a tradition that builds on previously achieved results. In order to be accepted for publication, articles must demonstrate what previous research has yielded and what new contribution the publication has for the subject in question. In order for this to work optimally, it is essential that research results are as accessible as possible. Open Access publications are an excellent means of achieving this.
In one of these reactions, NWO indicated that it wants to go further than just the 10 steps mentioned in the initiative, and also to strive for a different appreciation of scientific achievements than counting publications in peer reviewed journals. This reduces the pressure of publishing, which is still preventing many researchers from publishing their results in an Open Access journal. This pressure also leads to another perversity in the current system, the predatory journals. These journals tempt researchers to publish their results quickly, without a thorough peer review process, often after payment of a considerable amount.
>> The Economist: “European countries demand that publicly funded research be free”
>> Stan Gielen (Chairman NWO) “NWO wants to move away from the impact factor” (in Dutch)
>> Article about predatory journals
Previously I wondered why a similar initiative is not launched for the open availability of educational resources too. Educational resources made with public funds should be available to everyone. After all, it has already been paid for (the moral argument). As with the publication of research results under Open Access, open sharing of educational resources contributes to free access to knowledge, making an important contribution to the realisation of UNESCO’s SDG 4: “to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning opportunities for all” (the access argument).
We may witness more and more governments and the EU requiring educational resources created in a government-funded or EU-funded project to be made publicly available. But an initiative as comprehensive as cOAlition S is not available for OER.
Why is this? What factors are at stake that could give us more insight into why a broad coalition for the free provision of publicly funded educational resources has not taken off? So far, we have identified the following arguments. We invite readers to respond, to propose additions and changes.
One of the factors seems to be costs. The costs of purchasing journals, in order to be able and allowed to consult publications, are direct expenses that are tangible for educational institutions. They are also visible in the annual accounts of libraries and institutions.
To give you an idea of expenditure: in the Netherlands it was 43 million euros (source, in Dutch) in 2015; worldwide in 2015 it was a profit margin (!) of 7.6 billion euros (source), which is roughly 30% of the turnover. Because institutions are directly affected by the still rising costs, this is an important factor in our eyes in explaining why the international research and education world has formed a coalition such as the cOAlition S.
Costs for making (open) educational resources are usually indirect and invisible in the annual accounts of educational institutions. They are mainly hidden in the “costs for employees”. The costs for students and self-learners do not even appear in the financial statements of institutions. In addition, there are the hidden costs of teachers who create and adapt materials in their own time.
We have not (yet) been able to find an estimate of the costs that are spent annually on the creation of learning materials. But based on the fact that in 2016 around 46,000 FTEs in the Netherlands were working as teachers or researchers (source, in Dutch) in higher education and research, with an average hourly wage bill of €60, and the assumption that 40 hours per FTE per year are spent on developing and adapting learning materials, we arrive at a conservative estimated annual cost of 40*46000*€60=€110 million per year. The situation in other countries may not differ. In our opinion, the amount of money involved justifies an initiative for OER, similar to cOAlition S.
For scientific publications, there is an internationally recognized, highly developed and well-functioning ecosystem. This ecosystem ensures scientific progress. The fact that the revenues of this ecosystem are distributed and appropriated very unevenly is an accelerator in the public debate. This ecosystem is crucial for the functioning of other ecosystems, such as international scientific research and higher education (scientific and vocational). It is somewhat less connected to other forms of education, such as primary and secondary education and the TVET sector (Technical and Vocational Education and Training).
In the case of OER, such an ecosystem must in fact still be built up, and the ecosystem to be developed must also be linked to the existing education and training ecosystems.
Quality assurance system
The ecosystem for scientific publications comprises a well-known and recognized quality assurance system based on peer review. Therefore, anyone interested in a publication has the certainty that the publication meets a certain minimum quality standard. The undermining of this certainty by the aforementioned predatory journals is therefore disastrous; the system is in danger of providing false certainty.
Such a system does not (yet?) exist for OER. Institutions each have their own quality assurance system for OER, but it is often unknown on what such a system is based and on what aspects OER are considered. As a result, users of OER remain uncertain about their quality, and will have to make greater efforts to determine whether the learning materials they find actually have the quality they are looking for.
Value for the professional
Scientific, peer-reviewed publications make a significant contribution to the researcher’s reputation and thus to assessment and career development. Increasing the visibility of these results by publishing Open Access helps to increase that reputation, although, as mentioned above, there are also comments to be made by making the assessment depend too much on the number of publications.
Open sharing of educational resources has little or no impact on the reputation of teachers. As far as we know, open sharing of educational resources is hardly a factor in the assessment of instructors. Nobody mentioned this in our research in 2017 (source, in Dutch).
We have mentioned a number of factors that may play a role in the explanation of less interest in arriving at an initiative for OER, cOERalition S, comparable to cOAlition S for Open Access. However, we still have an unsatisfactory feeling that we have not yet been able to identify this difference sufficiently.
However, it is clear to us that as an OER community, we must work towards the creation of institutional OER ecosystems and, at the same time, a national OER ecosystem (including a known and recognized quality assurance system). This goes beyond ‘mainstreaming of OER’. At national level, an important argument is that educational resources that are made with public funds in education must be available under open licenses.