What is the impact of Open Access and MOOCs on Publishing and Higher Education?

In a new article out today in SAGE Open titled “Open Access, Megajournals, and MOOCs: On the Political Economy of Academic Unbundling,” Dr. Richard Wellen of York University discusses the impact of the development of open academic content output through open access publishing and MOOCs. Intrigued by his study, we decided to ask him and the editor of his study, Dr. Stephen Pinfield a few questions. Here is what they had to say:

This article addresses MOOCs and open access. Dr. Wellen, what did you find surprising when conducting your analysis?

Dr. Richard Wellen

Dr. Wellen: I was convinced that the comparison of MOOCs and open access scholarship would illustrate how the new technology-driven sharing economy in academia is bringing changes –intended and unintended – in the relationship between the market and academic institutions and practices. What surprised me was the complex and distinct way the academic productivity agenda appears to be unfolding in each instance.

The open access scholarship movement is often connected to the moral argument that the public which funds the research ought to have access to it. In recent years that has changed. The recent policy initiatives to promote open access in countries like the UK and the US have been based not so much on a principled commitment to openness, but rather on a more strategic commitment to the maximization of research productivity. Furthermore, controversy has erupted about the possible role of publishers in shaping or resisting these changes and also whether new approaches to funding research communicationwill have a distorting effect. In spite of this, my analysis shows that the values and practices of the academic commons may still thrive in the new ecosystem of scholarly communication. The research community has a good deal of autonomy, which means that the growth of open access is likely to be tempered in areas and fields where new services and service providers are not seen as helpful partners with the academic commons.

In the case of MOOCs on the other hand, academic unbundling and the outsourcing of teaching has already brought a disruptive tension between the market and the academic commons. Concerns about academic autonomy and the over-use of business-oriented reforms have been voiced. This indicates that the unbundling of academic activities and services may have a different impact in the sphere of teaching and research respectively. It was this contrast in the autonomy of the two spheres that I found surprising (but also instructive) as an investigator of academic and higher education policymaking.

2. Dr. Pinfield, what did you find surprising while reviewing the paper?

Dr. Stephen Pinfield

Dr. Pinfield: It is surprising that there is still little written in the peer-reviewed literature on the political economy of open access and how this relates to the way the scholarly community operates. Now we can see more of how OA is likely to work in practice, and of the intended and unintended consequences, it is important to ensure we have a theoretically-robust view of the economics of OA. Richard Wellen’s paper fills a gap in discussing the features of the OA market and how they are likely to play out in the ‘academic commons’.

It is also surprising that so little has been written connecting different Open agendas. Our understanding of this area needs to be augmented both by experimental implementations and theoretical analyses. The contribution of this paper in linking two important Open agendas (OA mega-journals and MOOCs) around issues of scale and un/bundling is important.

3. What do you hope people will take away from the article?

Dr. Wellen: I would hope that my article helps members of academic communities see that openness is more than a high-minded principle implicit in academic work and research, or a value implied by treating higher education as a public good. Openness in a digital age implies that more academic services and content will be portable and that, for better or worse, this changes the kind of policies and institutional forms which are available to academic communities. It also provides new options for policymakers who, for a variety of reasons, are becoming more interested in maximizing the economic and social impact of higher education institutions and research.

Dr. Pinfield: This article makes an interesting and useful contribution to the ongoing discussions regarding open access taking place amongst researchers, publishers, information managers and policymakers. Providing a framework for understanding what is currently going on and the roles of the different actors is important. The developments discussed have the potential to create disruptive change in the current scholarly communication system, as the paper points out, and so need to be better understood and built into the strategic thinking of policymakers and the behaviours of all the stakeholders.

4. Many have said that social scientists have had a back seat in the conversation of open access support and open access policy. Why might it be important for such scholars to get involved in this conversation?

Dr. Wellen: Social scientists are indeed less involved in the open access conversation. Social science stakeholders, including universities, publishers and academics themselves are by no means convinced that open access represents a positive trade-off for them. To take just one example, if open access journals are supported by payments by authors, then it is less likely to be accepted by social scientists, who typically receive less support from specific grants than their STEM counterparts.

I do think that social scientists might find reasons to embrace open access in its various forms (Green and Gold, for example). Megajournals like SAGE Open provide features like a rapid review cycle which can help support more timely and topical research. The availability of more tools for non-traditional research networking, searching and discovery (beyond the journal) may encourage social scientists to pursue open access methods of dissemination that naturally complement those tools. On the other hand, old habits die hard, and if subscription based publishing provides more recognition and impact for authors then they may be unlikely to pursue an open content path. The success of initiatives that are supported by high profile publishers like SAGE may change that over time.

Dr. Pinfield: Many models of open access have to date been developed assuming scholarly communication processes and systems more like those in STEM subjects. In particular, the ‘Gold’ OA route (OA publication in journals) may often require pre-publication payments and therefore assumes that researchers have access to funds to cover these costs. For many Social Scientists, this may not be the case. However, levels of acceptance of OA have varied across the Social Sciences, with some subjects, such as Economics, showing a greater readiness to embrace OA (partly because of discipline-specific characteristics including, in the case of Economics, the pre-existing practice of freely-circulating working papers).

It is noticeable that recently a larger number of Social Science scholars have engaged with OA issues from different disciplinary perspectives, including Economics, Sociology and Education to name a few. Their work is enlarging our understanding of OA significantly and is therefore a welcome trend.

5. What do you think is the future of open academic content?

Open content in academic research and teaching is an outgrowth of new technologies and the culture and deliberate policies that have developed around them. On the one hand open content reflects some of the values of the system of scholarship and the objectives of the educational community in which knowledge is (ideally) treated as a public good. But openness also means portability, relying less on trusted intermediaries and is ultimately linked to the unbundling of functions and activities from one another. This means that open content is part of a value chain that includes new proprietary and commodified services and products as well as new ways of credentialing and certifying. Some examples are the emergence of independent commercial peer review services or independent academic credentialing services. But the future of openness is itself open. MOOCs may turn out to be a mere fad or might struggle to gain recognition in the higher education economy obsessed with ranking and prestige. The future of open academic content will depend more on its social recognition than on its cost effectiveness.

Dr. Pinfield: I would expect open access to research outputs to become increasingly mainstream for a growing number of disciplinary areas. This is likely to be combined with greater openness associated with other academic content, including data and learning resources. Academic outputs will also become richer in themselves, moving away from flat text to incorporate datasets, rich media and other applications, such as simulations. At the same time, scholarly communication is likely to involve greater use of more informal, immediate and interactive forms of ‘publication’, incorporating social media technologies into the communication flow. All of this is likely to be associated with a gradual shift in notions of value and performance measurement in the academic community. This combination of factors – technological, managerial and cultural – is likely over time to create significant change.

Richard Wellen is an Associate Professor in Business and Society and the Graduate Programs in Social and Political Thought and the Faculty of Education at York University. His publications include studies of changing business models of scholarly publication, postsecondary tuition policy, competition in higher education and contemporary political theory.

Stephen Pinfield is Senior Lecturer in the Information School at the University of Sheffield, UK. He has been involved in research and development in the area of open access for more than a decade, including contribution to national and international policy discussions. His most recent publications include work on the economics of open access, the attitudes and policies of medical research charities to open access, and the global development of open-access repositories of scholarly outputs.