By Sarah Wright
What Is Open Policy?
In a webinar titled 'The Obviousness of Open Policy,' Dr. Cable Green, Director of Global Learning for Creative Commons, made the case for the broad adoption of open policy. Before I dive into the specifics of the talk, let's first define what open policy is. The basic argument of open policy is that when public money is used to fund research or other academic and information-generating activities, the product of those activities should be freely available to the public that paid for it. Under open policy, if a chemist receives a National Institutes of Health grant to fund a study, the results of that study would be freely accessible to any U.S. citizen.
The basic argument of open policy is that taxpayers deserve a return on their investment. It doesn't make sense to make citizens effectively pay twice to access information that's being generated on their dime. Under the current system, most researchers fund their studies through government grants. In order to have those studies published (and in order to survive in a publish-or-perish career), they typically are submitted to a journal, which demands that the study's author relinquish intellectual property rights as a condition of publication. The research is then essentially held hostage by the publisher's copyright, and the public - including the authors themselves - must pay the copyright holder for access to that information. Open policy provides a legal imperative for researchers using public money to sidestep this process by using technology to make information available in a cost-effective manner.
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Barriers to Open Policy
Open policy does seem pretty obvious, especially when laid out by a passionate advocate like Dr. Green. So why isn't it the norm? There seem to be two main factors for that. One is a simple lack of awareness on the part of policymakers and academics. The standard business model for providing and acquiring textbooks is an old one, whereas the open policy and OER movements are relatively new. Academic interaction with copyrighted material, from journal publication to textbook selection, is entrenched in the status quo. It's going to take awareness of OER and open policy to make changes on that front.
But a second problem is the mammoth textbook publishing industry. Why would a multi-billion-dollar industry want to cede ground to a movement that's focused on lowering consumer costs? It makes sense that these publishers would want to protect their business interests, but open policy doesn't necessarily pose a threat.
Open Policy is Obvious
For example, Dr. Green cited a bill - SB 10523 - that was introduced in the California State Senate last month. The bill calls for the adoption of open policy to provide quality, affordable textbooks to 'students in the 50 most widely taken lower division courses'. But according to Dr. Green, the textbook publishers are trying to kill the effort, saying it's inappropriate for government to compete with the private sector. But in reality, the State would simply be providing funding for others to produce the texts - textbook publishers could bid for these contracts, meaning that business opportunities would be created, not lost.
There is a clear, logical path to lower textbook costs, a path that makes sense given the economic strain felt by students and academic institutions alike. Open policy is a logical answer to many of the economic challenges facing higher education. Dr. Green believes that policymakers have an ethical responsibility to adopt open policy. Hopefully our lawmakers will begin to see things the same way.