Mixing oil and water? The publisher-OER interface

24 03 2012

I am currently involved in PublishOER. This is a JISC funded project which is bringing together OER academics with publishers. You may think this is a bit of a strange thing to do – I certainly did! Why on earth would large publishing houses be interested in the concept of OER, when on the face of it students using OER may not buy textbooks because of the free content? And why would we, as institutions producing and using OER, be interested in publishers, when they often make the creation of OER very difficult?

Can we overcome the perceived "oil and water" image of commercial publishers and Open Educational Resources?

This is where PublishOER is working to see if a more symbiotic relationship can be developed. What I have realised is that it is in both parties interests to work with the other. Nearly two years ago I sat in a meeting with some small publishers and actually had to explain what Creative Commons licenses are – but this is definitely changing. Publishers (I am talking book not journal) are realising that by “donating” some of their content as OER they are potentially marketing their products. Students get a realistic view of what is on offer, and the possibilities for new iTunes style purchasing are endless. Mobile learning technology is entering the equation which adds another level of engagement. The standard eBook is not necessarily the way forward, as Apple’s iBooks are demonstrating. I am realising as someone who produces OER content, that by negotiating with publishers to obtain some OER material I can massively enhance my own learning activities.In addition, the sustainability of OER as a concept is dependent on the development of business models.

But this is not as straightforward as it may sound at first. There are a myriad of issues surrounding copyright when publishers start to think about releasing material. Part of the project, led by Hugh Look and Rightscom, is generating potential scenarios to consider as a team. For example, if I as an academic produce a book chapter with some material already licensed as my own OER (for non commercial reuse and repurpose) where does that leave the ownership of this material if someone else has already incorporated it into an OER? What can I/should I promise regarding ownership to the publisher? Quite a conundrum….

The other issue, and my main interest, is the pedagogical side. What do students want? We are trying to establish where the textbook sits within this new environment. This is particularly interesting in the veterinary context – our students tend to be Google driven but textbook oriented, perhaps because of the difficulties of validation of online sources. I often see them using Google as a “quick look” method, and then accessing textbooks when they need “a bit more”. Of course, we also have WikiVet, a huge repository of veterinary OER – so we are working to trial some publisher donated content to see how this is used by students in various different contexts. This is something we started with the OVAL project, and is also being done in the OVAM project with a focus on anatomy resources.

A symbiotic relationship like that of clown fish and anemone is an aspiration of the PublishOER project group, who are looking to create the same relationship between publishers and OER producers and users.
Image:Jan Dirk, CC licensed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Common_clownfish_curves_dnsmpl.jpg

This promises to be a fascinating project and the hope of a more symbiotic relationship between publishers and OER oreinted academics is a genuine one. Textbooks are not yet the chip wrappers of veterinary education – but the potential for this occurring increases as online content becomes more accessible and pedagogically sound.

It is up to us all to work together and produce the best possible outcome for students, who will potentially be even less able to purchase expensive books in the future. OER may go from a “nice to have” to a necessity, and this is where PublishOER could really innovate.