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OER loves academic libraries

As the library of the University of Michigan makes its final decision about taking on responsibilitiy for OER (Open Education Resources) publishing at the University, a report entitled Reaching the heart of the university: Libraries and the future of OER looks at progress on this collaboration to date. Importantly, the authors, Pieter Kleymeer, Molly Kleinman and Ted Hanss, who will be presenting this as a paper at the Open Education 2010 Conference in Barcelona next month, also reflect more widely and on the many synergies between academic libraries and the OER movement.

Open Michigan

Taking on responsibility for OER publishing at the University of Michigan would mean that the existent Open.Michigan project would be either partly or wholly integrated into the library. Open.Michigan is based in the Medical School, having been initiated by a small number of graduate students and a dean’s laudable conviction that “open education had a place in medical instruction”. It currently focuses on four major areas of activity:

1.       Producing OER from course material , and outreach and consulting services related to OER production

2.       Developing processes and software to support OER production and publishing

3.       The Open.Michigan website

4.       A partnership with OER Africa – The African Health OER Network.

The legacy of early digitisation

The University Library launched its first digitisation and Open Access projects in the early 1990s, and like many other early adopter libraries, now has “established operations to share free content online” – namely “a copyright office, an institutional repository, an experimental unit publishing open access scholarly journals, monograph series, public domain image collections, print-on-demand textbooks, and reprints.”

Dovetailing values

The paper is keen to draw out the broader implications of the Michigan initiative by emphasising the commonality of goals and missions of OER projects and academic libraries:

Academic OER initiatives and university libraries share a determination to improve access to all kinds of scholarly and educational materials, both on their campuses and throughout the world. Given those dovetailing values, partnerships between OER initiatives seem not just logistically convenient but philosophically obvious.

Synergies

It’s not just about commonality though. It’s about attributes that libraries can offer to OER initiatives, and the report groups these into two categories – infrastructure and relationships.

The roll-call of library infrastructural assets that potentially benefit university OER initiatives should be familiar to most librarians – search and discovery capabilities, copyright expertise, data storage, metadata and indexing, institutional repositories and preservation. It’s this final one, preservation, that caught my attention as it seemed less self-evident than the others, so I’ll quote the report on this:

Many OER projects either use dedicated OER or open courseware publishing platforms such as eduCommons, learning management systems like Sakai or Moodle, or have created their own, but these systems are not designed for preservation of materials or formats. Using platforms like DSpace and Fedora, IRs contain materials in a wide range of formats, and are committed both to making the content freely available and discoverable on the open web, and to preserving the content over the very long term. Few digital publishing operations have concerned themselves with long-term preservation, and as a result gigabytes of born digital content, websites and publications have already been lost (Brand, 1999). Depositing OER into institutional repositories opens up a new potential avenue of discovery while also ensuring that the material will be available for years to come.

The report also comments on the less tangible but nonetheless important area of relationships, pointing out that:

Most university libraries have a central and trusted position in the lives of faculty, students, and administrators on their campuses. Librarians support curriculum development, guide instructors to appropriate learning content, and assist with research.

And in terms of librarian skills:

Areas in which librarians have skills that are relevant to OER programs include outreach and education, curriculum development and instructional support.

Money money money

The big question, all too familiar in the current question, is funding. The report is clear that the library will need additional money in order to take on this function. This was unresolved at the time of writing, and investigations into funding sources are underway. Let’s hope they succeed, as the benefits right across and indeed beyond the institution would seem to be manifold:

If the goal of OER production is to change the culture in the academy, to create a community of teaching and learning that is more participatory, more open, and more accessible, to shift the value system towards one that privileges research and teaching materials that are available for use and reuse over content that is restricted and locked away, what better place from which to launch such an ambitious program than the library, the heart of the university?

Halfway to paradise

Almost halfway there, a research report authored by Holly Mercer from Texas A&M University, is an analysis of the behaviours, as opposed to the attitudes of academic librarians in relation to Open Access publishing. With the issue of Open Access, academic librarianship seems caught between the imperative of cost-saving, difficulties in effectuating change in the faculties and the need to provide a continuous service (not mentioned in this study, but an important factor in inhibiting the cancellation of journal titles or “making a stand with the publishing industry” over price rises).

With an emphasis on behaviour then, the research methodology avoids the survey approach, and instead conducts an analysis of literature published by the LIS community and indexed in the LISA abstracts database, rationalising that data in ways such as de-duplication and exclusion of non-academic librarian authors.

Early on in the report, the issue of Open Access is situated in a broader context of shifting roles and responsibilities in academic librarianship:

Bibliographers and reference librarians have become liaisons who provide expanded services to academic departments. Liaison-librarians often are responsible for discussing scholarly communication topics, such as the rising cost of scholarly journal subscriptions and open access alternatives, and are expected to advise authors to retain enough rights to their published work to use in the classroom, to share with colleagues, and to deposit in an institutional or subject repository.

Yet the report highlights significant levels of ambivalence around this new responsibility:

A 2009 study by Palmer et al. concluded librarians are generally quite supportive of scholarly communications programs including opening access to scholarship, but are nonetheless ambivalent or unsure how to discuss these topics with faculty at their institutions.

It may be that this lack of confidence is symptomatic of uncertainty across academia of the benefits of Open Access. The report discusses the low take-up of institutional repositories, and this reminded me of some qualitative research I carried out in 2008, in which a Russell Group university psychology researcher told me that the benefits of simply dumping [sic] a paper into a repository hadn’t been made clear to him. The problem goes beyond poorly rolled out repositories. It remains the case, for example, that the “certification process” (i.e. quality review) of a published article sits with the journal rather than the repository.

One of the strengths of this report is its constructive criticism of institutional repositories. Dorothea Salo is quoted as making the following very strong statement:

Repository software serves observed and stated faculty needs surrounding content creation and dissemination hardly at all.

And the report goes on to say:

The University of Rochester library investigated the discrepancy between the stated benefits of institutional repositories and the desires of faculty and found that most want to work with colleagues, as well as organise and manage their research and writing. IRs only minimally cater to these goals.

Back to the advocacy issue, a particularly valuable recommendation made in the body of this report is that if academic librarians were practitioners of open access publishing, they would find it considerably easier to evangelise to academics:

Academic librarians believe the profession should advocate for OA but few said they were supporting OA by taking action individually, such as self-archiving or amending agreements.

So the report suggests that the full power of evangelism is only released when you practise what you preach. And for this point alone, the report is valuable. Practise what you preach, and provide tools to help the congregation to follow suit. But if neither the academic librarian nor the academic in the faculty is adopting open access en masse, then there may be deeper problems not dealt with in this otherwise excellent report. So the report does provide a rare analysis of librarian behaviours around Open Access, but ultimately fails to dig down into the reasons behind the behaviours described. We need to look beyond the report, not necessarily for attitudinal factors, but for more cultural, political and economic reasons behind this resistance to change.