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Fighting the rising cost of knowledge

By Alexander Kim, October 23 2014 —

Knowledge is a commodity, and the price keeps going up.

The Alberta government estimates that university students spend between $1,000–$1,700 on textbooks every year. According to the University of Alberta Students’ Union, textbook prices have increased at nearly three-times the rate of inflation since 1995.

University of Calgary libraries and cultural resources will spend over $9 million this year to access over 77,000 online journals, thousands of e-books and multimedia resources — a price that U of C librarians say increases by about $500,000 each year.

To fight rising prices, many are advocating for free and unrestricted access to textbooks and peer-reviewed research.

The Alberta government set aside $2 million to fund projects supporting open textbooks at Alberta universities in April.

Open textbooks are freely available on the Internet and licensed under creative commons. This allows anyone to edit and repurpose the work and students don’t have to pay a dollar to use them.

A steering committee of students, faculty and university administrators was tasked with distributing the funds. U of C vice-provost libraries and cultural resources Tom Hickerson and U of C Students’ Union president Jarett Henry both sit on the committee.

“The concept is that once knowledge is produced it should be free and accessible to everyone,” Henry said.

Alberta’s initiative follows British Columbia’s lead, where the provincial government funded an open-textbook project led by the non-profit organization BCcampus.

Since the project began in 2012, BCcampus has accumulated a collection of 74 open textbooks. Books from the collection are used in at least 45 classes at B.C. universities so far.

Project manager Clint Lalonde said five textbooks were created from scratch by BCcampus, eight existing books were adapted and localized and the rest came from other sources. About half of the books are peer reviewed.

Lalonde said open textbooks have saved B.C. students over $350,000. By the end of the spring semester, he said total savings will exceed $500,000.

Alberta will ask for proposals to improve the quality of open textbooks available from BCcampus. Henry said he expects funding to pay for peer review and to create materials to supplement open textbooks.

“We don’t want to reproduce textbooks that BCcampus already has available. We want to make them better through editing them or adding on additional videos, PowerPoint slides and quiz banks,” Henry said.

Open textbooks haven’t yet been used in any courses at the U of C but instructor William Huddleston said he would consider it.

“I like the idea. It’s probably the future, but I don’t know that we’re there yet,” he said.

Huddleston said he’s concerned about the time it might take to edit an open textbook if he found gaps in the material. He’s not sure students like using electronic textbooks compared to print versions.

The Canadian government is also supporting a move towards open-access academic publishing.

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research; Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council; and the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council are the three major federal granting agencies for research in Canada collectively known as the Tri-Council. The Tri-Council is expected to announce a new open-access policy this fall.

A draft of the policy from 2013 proposed that all journals published with funding from Tri-Council grants should be free to access within 12 months of publication.

The U of C library supports the Tri-Council policy, as Hickerson said the policy will lower the high costs of subscribing to scholarly journals. He also said that open-access publishing restores the right of the public to access the fruits of publicly-funded research.

“When the public has already paid for [research], they shouldn’t have to pay for it again,” Hickerson said.

But some researchers feel differently.

After the Tri-Council released a draft of the open-access policy in 2013, the Tri-Council invited stakeholder groups to submit feedback on the draft. Feedback from researchers, universities, libraries, non-governmental organizations, scholarly associations, journals and journal-publishers were summarized in a report published this spring.

Researchers at the Tri-Council said the policy would shift the financial burden of academic publishing from post-secondary institutions to individual researchers.

One common model for open access journals requires researchers to pay article processing charges (APC), as the journals can’t sell subscriptions.

APCs range from $75 to over $5,000 per article. According to the U of C library, the average APC is about $1,500.

Researchers responding to the 2013 draft worried that having to pay more APCs to comply with the Tri-Council open-access policy would cut into research budgets. They said they would have fewer funds to pay students and conduct research, resulting in fewer publications.

Gerald Zamponi, senior associate dean for research at the Cumming School of Medicine, agrees that publicly-funded research should be disseminated as widely as possible. However, Zamponi said publishing in open-access journals, especially influential ones, can be expensive for researchers.

Hickerson said the U of C recognizes this and has established an open-access authors’ fund to help researchers pay APCs. In the seven years that the fund has existed, it has helped pay for over 600 publications. This year, $250,000 will be available through the fund.

With the introduction of the Tri-Council open-access policy, Zamponi worries that much more money will be needed to help U of C researchers comply with the policy.

“I don’t think the university can pay for everyone’s APCs. [The Cumming School of Medicine] has maybe 500 faculty members. If each publishes three or four papers a year, those fees will add up,” he said.

Zamponi thinks that it would be admirable if all published research was freely available, but the reality of the academic publishing industry makes that impossible. Journals have to make money. If they don’t, researchers lose the option to publish.

“Someone has to pay,” he said.

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