Q: Why would a faculty member consider putting an Open Access textbook on Emory's website?
A: I teach a course for which I currently cannot find a satisfactory text. Those in the field that would be acceptable are either too old or too expensive. The only current candidate text costs more than $250, and I can't see asking public health students (among the poorer of our flock) to spend this kind of money on a one-semester course. I suspect there are faculty teaching courses on this topic at other schools who face the same problem, especially at schools in low-resource settings. In addition, the ability to update material immediately when a truly important insight comes along is very attractive. I'm also willing to give up the rather unrealistic possibility of receiving payment for the work.
Q: Why not just create your own website and place the material there?
A: I think it would be good for users to see Emory's branding when they look at the site. Also, I don't have the information technology skills to build or maintain a website.
Q: Would this put Emory out on the fringe of respected universities?
A: In fact, Emory has been rather slow to adopt these efforts. Several US universities I consider to be in the same league as Emory (Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Rice University) now not only accept but promote Open Access text publishing. On MIT's OpenCourseWare site, several books published by MIT Press are available for purchase in printed version and also available for download with no charge. Rice's Connexions Consortium site (a project of Rice University Press) provides tools for authoring Open Access educational materials of many types, including textbooks. Columbia University Press now offers selected historical works at Gutenberg-e, an Open Access publishing site under specified use rights (in fact, an Emory author is included among those published here). The MERLOT group (Multimedia Educational Resource for Learning and Online Teaching) listed on their website on February 22, 2010, a total of 427 Open Access texts; several of these are in "wiki" format so they can frequently be updated. The state of California has begun a Free Digital Textbook Initiative to identify and encourage use of such materials.
A national project, Creative Commons Licensing Conditions, has developed licenses that would make it easy for Emory authors to allow others to use their texts while protecting recognition and attribution for themselves and for Emory. Rice University, in particular, through their Connexions Consortium project, has adopted and adapted this intellectual property instrument to promote sharing while keeping the Rice brand in the forefront.
Several other comparable schools have gone part of the way to this end. These include the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, which promotes Open Access course materials (but one must buy the text to complement the materials available online). Applying this new direction to texts merely extends the movement exemplified by the Emory Library's e-publishing initiatives for Open Access journals, the new Digital Scholarship Commons (a center to work with faculty to create computer-based research and educational projects), and similar initiatives.
Digital text publishing itself is not the question. Student groups are organizing to promote affordable textbooks. The Amazon Kindle, Apple iPad, and other tablets are sparking a revolutionary demand for digital products, including texts. Drafting, proofing, and publishing a text and its revisions in digital form will be the standard in comparison to the traditional publishing process. Also, fewer trees will be cut to support the process. Most of the established text publishers are adapting to this change. The question is whether Emory will be a player or just sit on the sidelines watching.
Q: MIT faculty own the copyrights to the content they create for OpenCourseWare, but they then license MIT to distribute it. What incentive exists for faculty to enter into such a licensing agreement?
A: The digital world of scholarship now has been welcomed (or at least accepted) at Emory with the development of web-based and Open Access journals, targeted academic programs, and attention to Open Access for theses, dissertations, and other Emory products (please see this and the last issue of Academic Exchange and the last issue of Emory Magazine). What MIT and Rice have that Emory does not have is a systematic and campus-supported approach to digital publishing. Emory's resources, if applied to this end, would allow the faculty text author to capitalize on Emory's information technology platforms for widespread dissemination, Emory's experts in digital communication and editing, and Emory's resources for dealing with intellectual property issues. Many faculty members do not have expertise in these areas.
Q: Information technology is not cheap, and neither is the time of those who understand this tool. Won't support for open textbooks waste increasingly precious Information Technology resources that could be used to generate income?
A: To me, this is exactly how Emory Information Technology should be investing its resources. Increasingly, as they decide whether to come to our school, students, faculty peers, and researchers are evaluating our online presence. Promoting every product from our faculty is critical to catch up in this marketing and selection process. This includes textbooks, presentations, blogs, wikis, and just plain storytelling about the great things we do.
Q: Another possible administrative objection is that of risk related to "managing content." Might a faculty-authored text on Emory's website open the university to liability problems of copyright infringement; questions of permissions in photographs, tables, and other ancillary materials; and dealing with other contributors who may consider themselves coauthors?
A: As of February 19, 2010, the university has published online more than 450 student theses as "a joint initiative launched by the Emory University Libraries, the Emory Graduate School, and Emory College." The library also hosts electronic journals that are published by different groups on campus. The university accepts the "managing content" risks associated with these publications. It would be strange for Emory to suggest that the same risk associated with faculty texts should somehow be unmanageable.
Q: Most in the scholarly community still consider only the traditional deliverables like printed journals and textbooks the gold standard for academic achievement. Might projects like yours be a waste of time for junior faculty looking for promotion and tenure?
A: A very valid point for the Emory of today. However, the ivory tower eventually must catch up to the world around us. Selected digital or Open Access journals now are considered in some departments to be of acceptable quality when publications are evaluated. Emory faculty members even edit such journals. As younger faculty replace those who steadfastly stick to the old ways, it should become irrelevant whether a journal article or book is in printed or digital form, and whether the source is restricted or Open Access. Universities like MIT and Cal Tech that actively sponsor Open Access publications have been able to work out appropriate evaluation for scholarship regardless of this aspect.
Q: What's the next step?
A: My conversations with Emory administrators and staff lead me to believe that they would be willing to explore this further if there were a critical mass of faculty interested in such an effort. What the critical number would be has not been stated, but clearly it is more than one! I would be delighted if other faculty interested in pursuing this would contact me, so we could see there is enough demand to attract administrative attention.
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