Access to closed readings for OERu courses

As we work our way through putting up our first OERu, we are finding that we have a large number of readings are either from closed journals or are book chapters that we put on our Library reserve system.

What are your suggestions for working around this issue? Wondering what other partners are doing?

Any advice would be appreciated.

Hi Linda,

Excellent question and thanks for sharing with the group.

Many existing online courses at our partner institutions are based on closed all-rights reserved readings. Registered full-fee students at your university will have legitimate access to e-journals through licensing arrangements your university purchases from third party publishers. However, access to these resources will not be possible for OERu learners.

This illustrates important differences among:

  • Closed resources, that is, all rights reserved publications which are hosted behind password access. Typically payment is required by the user or institution to purchase licensing rights for providing online access to these resources.
  • Open Access resources (OA), which may be all-rights reserved or have an open content license which can be accessed through the Internet, ideally without password access or payment by the user.
  • Open Educational Resources (OER) which provide access to the resources at no-cost (ideally without password access) plus an open license which provides permissions in advance to reuse, revise, remix and redistribute.

In short, all OER will be open access, but not all open access resources are OER.

The core principles of engagement in the OERu require that our online courses which guide the learners must be licensed under a free cultural works approved license (that is CC-BY or CC-BY-SA). However, it is possible to link to open access resources (which may be all rights reserved) or design activities for learners to source their own open access resources in support of their learning. Consequently these closed resources should not be prescribed for OERu courses.

Guidelines for selecting and developing OERu courses

  1. Nominate courses which do not include too many resources encumbered by third party copyright which are not open access.
  2. Substitute closed resources with open access alternatives. (The Directory of Open Access Journals which lists over 10,000 journals is a good place to start. You may find open textbooks to support the learning outcomes in the course. Start your search for open textbooks at the BCcampus OpenEd project. Finally, its worth investing a little time to improve your search skills in finding OER and OA resources. Consult the finding OER page from the OERu’s DS4OER course.)
  3. Send requests to the respective copyright holders to consider release a digital version of the publication under an open license or at least provide open access versions. In the past, I have had reasonable success in getting permissions from authors to release openly licensed alternatives. The success rate may vary from discipline to discipline and does add time to the development process, but it can achieve surprising results. There is no harm in asking and most academics will appreciate the philanthropic mission of the OERu.
  4. Author open alternatives to substitute the closed resources. Consider collaborating with OERu partners to reduce cost and effort in generating open substitutes for closed course resources which can be reused and shared across the network.

I appreciate that in some disciplines the lack of OA and OER resources to support learning may result in additional time required to find alternative solutions. However, your investment today will contribute to more sustainable education in the future. Also, your course Introduction to Indigenous Australia is quite unique within the international context and fewer OA resources may be available in this field. That said, I can see huge potential and opportunities for collaboration and willingness of some authors in the discipline to share their knowledge with a wider international audience.

Hope this helps and I invite our other OERu partners to share their experiences.

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Thanks, Wayne, that’s an interesting set of distinctions between closed, OA, and OER. I’ve always thought of “all rights reserved” resources as closed whether they were publicly viewable without cost or not, but perhaps I’ve been on my own in that.

Also, it’s worth noting that as useful as “all rights reserved” resources can be, there’s a danger in using them in that access to them may be withdrawn later. With resources that can be copied to one’s own repository, even with mostly-unfree licenses like BY-NC-ND, there’s no such danger.

Hi Steve,

Speaking personally, I share your views that “all rights reserved” is closed even when these resources might be accessible at no cost. You are certainly not alone in holding this view.

Sadly, licensing is not always an effective mechanism to regulate intent. Remember Flatworld Knowledge the open textbook publisher? From recollection, most of these texts were published under a CC-BY-NC-SA license (under different versions of the license, ie. V1.x to V. 2.x). When the copyright holder decided to change their business model from free online access, a few folk from the free culture took the initiative to archive digital versions of these openly licensed texts (see for example Creative Commons licenses are irrevocable and as you point out, it is possible to make copies to your own repository.

However, under Creative Commons licenses, the copyright holder may request removal of attribution in the case of a collection or adaptation up until V3.0 of the license. Under 4.0 the removal of attribution is on request of the Copyright holder (in other words it is not required to be a modified work before the request is permissible.)

In this example the licensor requested the lardbucket site where copies of the texts are hosted, to remove the attribution requirement from the collection of books hosted on the site.

It may seem trivial to remove the attribution requirement because access to the original text is still available on the site. However, in practical terms, this is a good example of a form of enclosure of one of the most restrictive Creative Commons licenses because it reduces the perceived value of the text. I am aware of a course development here at Otago Polytechnic which was based on one of these open textbooks. The legal requirement by the licensor is to remove attribution. References to this collection should be attributed as anonymous. As a respected education provider, we did not feel comfortable prescribing a text authored by anonymous authors. Moreover, as we will be charging assessment and student fees, any derivatives of the original materials may be deemed by the licensor to be used for commercial activity and therefore infringing on the original license. Granted, this is an unusual case, and we should also acknowledge that “all rights reserved” copyright holders would also have the rights to remove the attribution requirement.

When I develop open courses, as an open educator, I refrain from using OA texts unless they are OER - but this is a personal choice. I don’t mind putting in the extra work to ensure the future freedoms of the course materials by finding or developing OER substitutes. However, I think there are pragmatic reasons why course designers may choose to develop open courses which use OA resources. For example, many university libraries provide access to “all rights reserved” tutorials on citation methods. I think its unlikely that these institutions would enclose these materials and there will be a large number of alternatives available on the open web. Similarly, the growing number of Governments which require research outputs funded by taxpayer dollars to be published in open access journals will reduced the risks of possible enclosure in the future of these OA peer reviewed journals.

I guess what I’m saying is that designing and developing OER courses is more than just choosing the “right” license. Educators need to assess the risks of enclosure and how this may impact on the learning experience.

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Hi Wayne,

Thanks for your thoughtful response. I’m very familiar with the curious saga of the Flat World Knowledge textbooks, although we use the Saylor Academy’s repository of them rather than Andy Schmitz’s. And yes, we do use them, for a variety of reasons. For one thing, our position differs from your institution’s on the use of works that may be unattributed, yet have a clear provenance and the endorsement of a third party such as the Saylor Academy. One might not be able to refer to an author, but for works in such a repository it may be appropriate to refer to that repository as the editor of such a work, particular when they release a version that has different pagination from the original.

You know I steadfastly agree with you on the drawbacks of the NonCommercial restriction, and like you I would prefer to use works without it. However, I do not agree with taking the broadest possible interpretation of how restrictive it might be. There doesn’t seem to be significant case law when it comes to the NC restriction, so given the lack of specificity on what, exactly, amounts to commercial use, there is a bit of a grey area. While it may be natural to want to avoid grey areas, that hesitation is exactly how fair use (fair dealing) became less useful in the U.S., people were unwilling to defend the broadest possible interpretation of fair use, and as a result the list of what was considered usual and customary grew progressively smaller. In particular, since access to the textbook itself is not being sold, I do not believe we should summarily concede that it is commercial use of an NC-licensed textbook when a course that lists it as useful charges tuition fees.

I hadn’t considered the Attribution clause’s ability for the licensor to revoke attribution as a form of enclosure, that’s very interesting. I can see your point that it is potentially troublesome when a licensor may change the way a work may be used after it’s already in place. But then that would include just about every license out there, it means that only materials carrying the CC0 waiver are entirely free from risk. So one way or the other, it seems we all have some risk to manage, and I certainly do agree that educators need to be able to assess them with greater sophistication than simply license selection.

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Hi Steve,

I appreciate you sharing your knowledge and expertise openly. I believe this thread will be valuable to educators engaged in designing OER courses and the need to assess inclusion decisions “with greater sophistication than simply license selection.”

I like your approach of treating the third party repository as an “editor” where, in this case, provenance can be determined with a little knowledge of searching properly. I think there is also a case to be made in providing learners with authentic experiences of this strange practice of a licensor and how to discern the history, quality and authenticity of digital works. After all, copyright is about rights to copy and its only the manifestation of the ideas where the economic and other rights can be protected.

I concur with your assessment that a student using the work in question, if sourced from a third party website would not easily be construed as commercial activity. Particularly in those countries where education (or research) is considered fair dealing (fair use). However, I would be reticent to remix components of these texts within our own OERu course materials given the ambiguity and lack of case law on the interpretation of Non-Commercial (NC) in this CC license context.

I think both sides of the NC debate would welcome a clear definition of what constitutes commercial activity in the CC licenses - but I appreciate that this is not easy to progress within common law countries.

Your point about the restrictive interpretation and erosion of fair dealing (fair use) is well made.

Indeed, this form of enclosure is subtle but effective in reducing perceived value. The licensor requests removal of attribution on the openly accessible versions and then places a properly attributed work behind a pay-wall which was first published as OER.

Valuable discussion.

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We’ve used some FWK content with the BC Open Textbook Project. We have tried to find attributed books (not all copies of the FWK books in the commons have had their attribution removed), and have built some adaptations on top of this content.

I have 2 personal thoughts on the FWK situation. One is that it would be a shame not to see that content used and reused as it represents a massive effort, and not using it feels like a wasted opportunity. The value of OER content increases the more it is used. OER content that is developed then never reused might just as well be closed content. So to have this massive body of content sitting there unused is, well, it feels a bit tragic and like a lost opportunity.

Second thought is that, taken to its extreme conclusion, most OER would likely end up being virtually anonymous at some point down the road. As the content is modified and changed by many different hands over the course of time, who contributed what becomes blurred to the point where it might as well be anonymous. Now, practically, I don’t see this happening anytime soon, except in examples like Wikipedia where it can be very difficult to tell who has contributed to a Wikipedia article (and granted, there are mechanisms in wikis to tell who contributed and edited content, but these grow unwieldy once you get past a few iterations). But I don’t know of OER’s that have gone through the types of iterative collaborative development to the point where authorship is as muddied as, say a Wikipedia article can be. But theoretically, it’s not hard to envision an open textbook that has been modified to such an extent that authorship becomes virtually invisible,


Hi Clint,

The BCcampus OpenEd project is inspirational and I hope the OERu partners will assemble more courses based on these resources.

This is an interesting thought. As cooperative and collaborative OER development becomes more commonplace, I can see that the value of attribution will become less important. In an open world, ideas want to be free and I suppose we could risk saying that the ideas are more important than the people who capture them.

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Hi Linda,
We are in a similar position with the development of our Research Methods course in that we can’t use our regular textbook and must find OER equivalents for the various chapters that are considered core. We have done an “OER audit” to see what OERs are available and we have found a combination of different chapters from different OER texts, some great YouTube lecture videos, some websites, and open journal articles Here’s what it looks like:

The great thing about this process is we’ve uncovered some OERs which are cool and interesting but on related matters or focussing on slighttly different disciplines, or are like little case studies. So we will be able to provide these as supplementary/extension resources to the students. There will be some materials that we decide to write ourselves as webpages in the wiki, in lieu of some of the readings, but we hope the OER audit minimises this, we hope to just write the materials to fill the gaps in what we found.

I can’t think of a more potentially useful open textbook than one in research methods. BCcampus has several on their list, with focus on either psychology or sociology. Maybe there are enough pieces there to assemble, add to and create a new OT for OERu’s use probably in multiple courses. By textbook I also include a variety of resources, not just text.