Open Access textbooks, provincial ministers of education and Access Copyright

There is an interesting article by Gale Holland in the Los Angeles Timestalking about the “eye-popping costs” of college and universitytextbooks. Caltech economics professor R. Preston McAfee offers asolution, which is to create textbooks that can be freely distributedgiven the bulk of these costs come from copyright costs and the costsof largely unnecessary intermediaries. McAfee “finds it annoying thatstudents and faculty haven’t looked harder for alternatives to theexorbitant prices”.

Textbooks are most often authored by people who are staff ateducational institutions. This staff then sells (or often gives away)their work to educational publishers who then edit and re-sell thematerial back to the educational sector. These educational publishersthen further demand high photocopying and other fees throughorganizations like Access Copyright. Many people have observed that educational publishers represent the bulk of the fees flowing through Access Copyright.

There is an alternative, which is to make the textbook materialfreely available at the source (the educational author), useprint-on-demand (or electronic reading), and skip the educationalpublishers entirely. This is already being done with MIT OpenCourseWare (OCW), which is a web-based publication of virtually all MIT course content. OCW is open and available to the world, with translations to languages other than English.

Opening material like MIT has allows for collaboration across institutions. The OpenCourseWare Consortiumis a collaboration of more than 200 higher education institutions andassociated organizations from around the world. These institutions areable to make use of the benefits of Commons Based Peer Production, aterm first introduced by Harvard Law School professor Yochai Benkler in his paper “Coase’s Penguin, or Linux and the Nature of the Firm“.The benefits of this model are further explained in Benkler’s book “TheWealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets andFreedom”. These materials help explain how institutions like MITbenefit not only other institutions by making materials Open Access,but how they receive massive benefits themselves through resourcemultiplication.

When Mark Leggott, a University Librarian at the University of Prince Edward Island, blogged about the Canadian Association of University Teachers (CAUT) encouraging academics to retain copyright,he suggested that this could “build a strong foundation for openaccess”. My hope is that that is the case, but this presumes that it isthe educational institutions — and not the educators — that have been alarger barrier to the adoption of open access.

We may find that educators are a larger barrier. CAUT is also a member of Access Copyright, and may be thinking more as royalty-demanding authors than as educators helping reduce high costs to students.

I have to admit that I am not certain what the barrier has been tomoving away from the outdated use of educational publishers andadopting open access methods. I am only guessing from watching relateddebates that it is the educational institutions and the provincialeducation miniseries that are the largest problem.

The discussion around so-called “educational use of the Internet” isan example. While some organizations like CAUT have suggested thateducators should simply rely on a broad interpretation of fairdealings, other organizations such as the Council of Ministers ofEducation, Canada (CMEC) and the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF)have been asking for an educational exception, and Access Copyright hasbeen asking for a levy. As I interpret this, CMEC and Access Copyright are in agreement that legacy methods of production should continue to dominate, and they are only arguing about price.

It is frustrating to watch CMEC focus on trying to get exceptions tocopyright, often claiming that they can’t afford the costs in theirbudgets. At the same time, educational institutions are increasinglyencouraged to charge royalties for the outputs of these institutions inthe form of copyright and patent royalties. This is hypocritical, andshould not be accepted by politicians.

The best long-term solution is to adopt Open Access for as muchmaterial as possible. The reduction of royalty fees that would need tobe paid by the educational sector would be party redirected to pay forthe production and editing of the open access material, as well as payappropriate fees to materials (such as fictional works, etc) where OpenAccess and peer production techniques do not work well.

This is a decision that is in the hands of a few groups:

a) Educators, and their unions (CAUT, Canadian Teachers’ Federation,etc), need to embrace the new model by accepting one-time fixed feesfor works created by educators, and no longer demand royalties. In anumber of cases collective agreements may need to be enhanced tofacilitate this. Open Access does not suggest that the authors ofmaterial do not get paid, but that they get paid one-time fees ratherthan royalties.

b) Educational institutions need to adopt policies to facilitate this production method. In the case of MIT they have policieswhere faculty retain ownership of most materials prepared for MITOpenCourseWare, following the MIT policy on textbook authorship. Theinstitution then directly funds the OpenCourseWare initiative (hosting,technical support, etc).

c) To encourage the longer-term cost savings, educational ministriesmay need to condition some funding on the adoption of Open Access.There are a wide variety of options being explored in other situationssuch as Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (policy encourages rather than requires open access), the National Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC), the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) , and others. (Glen Newton’s blog is a great source for Canadian open access information)

In a technology law column back in January,Michael Geist asks why there is so little happening in Canada. “Thesole Canadian participant in the Open Courseware consortium is CapilanoCollege, a relatively small school with 6,700 students located in NorthVancouver, B.C.”

He mentions the issue of collective agreements with educatorsstanding in the way of mandating participation, but that there are manyeducators that are willing. I believe the problem rests with theadministration who hypocritically want to have it both ways (freeinputs, royalty-bearing outputs), and provincial ministries ofeducation who haven’t done their homework to adequately understand thelarge long-term benefits of this type of investment.

I suspect that the institutions, school boards and ministries arealso heavily lobbied by special interest groups like Access Copyrightand the educational publishers they primarily represent, who do notwant to be cut out of the loop. Modern production mechanisms have madetheir participation in the educational sector unnecessary for the mostcostly educational material, and we should not be allowing them tostand in the way of modernization. There will still be fiction andother material where Open Access and Peer Production methods don’t workwell, but with the educational publishers out of the way it will bemuch easier to direct appropriate funds to the appropriate authors.

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