Monday, January 14, 2013

MOOCs Teach OA a Lesson

Just four years ago, Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) were tentative experiments promoted by a handful of professors. (Wikipedia, New York Times, Chronicle of Higher Education) Today, universities across the world are rushing in, and millions of students are enrolling. Contrast this with the Open Access movement (OA). More than twenty years after the introduction of the hep-th database (which became arXiv), OA remains a struggle. There have been significant OA advances, but universal open access to the scholarly literature remains a distant promise, probably requiring many more years.

Why did OA never reach the kind of momentum MOOCs seem to have?

Because successful MOOCs serve many thousands of students, their per-student costs are extremely low when compared to traditional teaching. Yet, the cost of producing a series of high-quality large-scale interactive multimedia events is significant. Compared with MOOCs, the start-up cost of OA is almost negligible. After an institutional repository is set up, the only barrier to OA is a few key strokes per scholarly paper.

Why were academic leaders so concerned about the minimal costs of OA? Why are they not concerned about the far more significant costs of MOOCs?

MOOCs have the potential of disrupting thousands of teaching positions. MOOCs are a threat to admissions offices and a system of university reputations based on rejection rates. On the other hand, universal OA would primarily disrupt libraries, publishers, and their middlemen, not academics. Yet, academic leaders are enamored with MOOCs, and they treat OA like a chore for which there is always some excuse to postpone. If MOOCs really prove to be as disruptive as hoped or feared, they figure it is preferable to be on the side of the disrupters.

Why do academic leaders not make the same calculation with respect to OA? Why do they fear the potential of OA-caused disruption? Why do they embrace the potential of MOOCs-caused disruption?

In my search for answers, I arrived at four tentative conjectures.

Conjecture 1. MOOCs are in their infancy. The wave of initial excitement will pass, and the hard MOOC work lies ahead. OA is further along in its evolution. Passed its own wave of initial excitement, OA is now in the slow process of building its infrastructure. Some form of OA will soon emerge as the inevitable path.

This conjecture provides cover to continue on the current path.

Conjecture 2. With MOOCs, first movers have a clear advantage. They have the most time to develop the know-how for producing successful MOOCs. With little competition, they can afford to make mistakes and learn from them. With OA, first movers provide a service to those on the sidelines and get little in return. (This perverse incentive explains, in part, the need for OA mandates.)

This begs for initiatives that reward scholars who make their works OA.

Conjecture 3. With MOOCs, faculty control their work, and they do what they do best: they innovate an area in which they are experts. OA feels like an external imposition. To add insult to injury, some repository managers have turned simple light-weight OA repositories into a bureaucratic mess with useless policies that turn faculty off. And it is not just repository policies. Scholars are increasingly awash in conflicting and confusing OA-related policies from funding agencies, publishers, universities, and libraries. Discussions about OA mandates do not help the cause either. It is irrelevant that OA mandates require very little effort when enacted; the discussion itself is a turn-off.

This is an argument to reduce the heavy-handedness of current OA approaches. Eliminate the bureaucracy, and replace institutional repositories with self-managed individual repositories. These may not eliminate all institutional policies, but they give scholars a greater degree of control and flexibility. Individual repositories are also portable when scholars move from one institution to the next. There are at least two options that make it easy for scholars to manage their own individual repository: and ORCID, the recently launched initiative to manage the identities of scholars, could also evolve into a system of individual repositories.

Conjecture 4. OA is not sufficiently disruptive. Hoping to minimize resistance to OA, OA advocates tend to underemphasize the disruptiveness of OA. Gold and Green OA leave the scholarly-communication system essentially intact. When presented in a minimalist frame, they are minor tweaks that provide open access, shift costs, and bend the cost curve. Such modest, even boring, goals do not capture the imagination of the most effective advocates for change, advocates who have the ears of and who are courted by academic leaders: venture capitalists. This is a constituency that seeks out projects that change the world.

This conjecture is an argument to pursue disruptive OA. What if OA completely erased the cost of all scholarly communication? That would reduce the cost of education and/or research by at least as much as some of the most disruptive MOOC scenarios.

PeerJ falls in the category of disruptive OA. PeerJ is a new model for open-access journals with peer review. PeerJ charges authors a one-time $99 membership fee and eliminates the per-paper publication charges of Gold OA journals.

One could, of course, dispose of journals altogether. Combine individual repositories with open evaluation and alternative metrics. The field of altmetrics has developed various impact measures based on usage statistics of individual papers. This fine-grained analysis is far superior to the rather coarse and often misleading Journal Impact Factor. To succeed, open evaluation and altmetrics must win over the entrenched interests that control academia's prestige machine.

Perhaps, none of these conjectures fully explain differing attitudes towards MOOCs and OA. Perhaps, it is a combination of all four. Perhaps, there are other factors at play. If so, what are they, and how should those factors influence our approach to OA?


  1. This is a great topic, and a very stimulating essay. Thanks for taking the time to think through this comparison. The self-managed repository idea is interesting, and I see how it could be less "heavy handed." On the other hand, we are working so hard to automate our institutional repository so that authors have to do nothing for us to maintain it, that I think we are saving them some work -- but, of course, only when they realize that. OA is going way too slow. And one of the surest signs of its failure is the enthusiasm of Elsevier. sigh.
    Anyway, this is rambling, but I really enjoyed this essay and will continue thinking about it. Thanks for the link, too!

    1. Thanks for the nice comment. I agree on the good work being done on institutional repositories, but even good work is not always appreciated as we intended. I am merely considering all options to increase the rate of OA acceptance.