Open academia: A philosophy of open practice
The aim of this introductory article and presentation is to share some of the story about the vision and reality of open academia.
Open academia refers to a philosophy and practice – ideas and action – which foster symbiotic, transparent relations between academia and society. Principles of openness (philosophy) and acts of sharingness (practice) are proposed as vital ingredients for a healthy, productive relationship between academia and society. Within such a world-view, the mutual goal is collaborative participation in developing and sharing a knowledge commons. Open academia can be pursued via commitment to provide and use open access, open licensing, open formats, free software and open governance of scholarly materials and activities (Neill, 2010).
Pt 1: Open academia philosophy
Academia involves society giving some people privileged roles which allow relative freedom in scholarly exploration and discovery. In return, society expects academia to share its knowledge and skills. Ideally, this leads to a symbiotic relationship in which society resources academia (e.g., with finance and infrastructure) and academia resources society (e.g., by sharing intellectual capital and providing training).
To foster such a symbiosis, it is proposed that openness is a key ingredient. Academia should maximise the accessibility and openness of its scholarly resources and learning activities – and society should provide concomitant support to academia to the value of its sharing. This is a basic, transactional model for the role of academia in modern society and one which is not entirely foreign, for example, to the rhetoric and actions of federal governments (e.g., Gillard, 2009).
Given such a transactional model, a strategic starting point for would be for the doors of academic institutions to be open by default, thereby maximising potential availability of its resources and interactivity with society. Only where there is sound rationale for closedness, in such an approach, should doors of academia be closed. Openness, transparency and accessibility are increasingly becoming progressive hallmarks of publically-funded institutions such as parliament, public services, and research institutes. Public-funded universities should similarly be championing knowledge-sharing and access to scholarly resources.
It is worth noting that the prefix “open” shouldn't really be necessary. Academia, by definition, implies scholarly openness. However, by using “open” as a prefix, the intention is to emphasise that greater shareability in academia is desirable, particularly given the current, relatively closed practices to which attention is now turned.
In summary, open academia refers to academia's raison d'etre – scholarly discovery and sharing. Let's now consider open academia in practice.
Pt 2: Open academia in practice
Openness is being suggested here as a generic, theoretical principle and being hypothesised as vital to authentic scholarship. In principle, open academia is simple (i.e., maximise sharing), but becomes surprisingly complicated, challenging, and disruptive in practice.
Consider, for example, an open academic who teaches a unit of study. There are several key decisions to be made, each with various options. At each point, there is one fundamental fork in the road – open or closed? The closed option masquerades as easier, but in the long-run often achieves less for academia and society than an open approach. For example, for any given unit of study (or research output or community service):
- Who can access learning content (such as textbooks and lectures)? (Access)
- Currently enrolled students?
- University staff?
- People of the future?
- Who is permitted to copy, reuse and remix the learning materials? (Licensing)
- Staff member?
- External body?
- What electronic file formats are used? (Formats)
- Proprietary? (Using a secret, protected code)
- Open? (Using an openly known structure)
- What software is required (by staff and students)? (Software)
- How is the unit of study to be taught, managed, and governed? (Governance)
- Opaquely? (Closed)
- Transparently? (Open)
The current academic norm embodies closedness: Typically, learning materials are restricted in access to currently enrolled students, the material is copyrighted with restricted usage and distributed in expensive hard copy format and/or in proprietary electronic formats which require use of proprietary software. Governance and management of these units of study is generally opaque (closed) to students, the public, and colleagues.
An open academic approach, alternatively would prioritise and champion:
- Open access: Materials are easy to find and are openly available via multiple channels
- Open licensing: Materials are re-usable with no or minimal restriction
- Open formats: File formats allow access from free software platforms
- Free software: Knowledge is generated, stored and shared using free software
- Open governance: Management of the unit is transparent and participatory
These proposed components of open academia apply to various embodiments and expressions of academic knowledge, such as:
- Courseware: Lectures, tutorials, readings, discussions, activities etc. within a unit of study
- Textbooks: Detailed guides to specific fields of study
- Articles: Reviews and reports about academic theory, research and practice
- Theses: Supervised research investigations
- Conferences: Presentations, papers and discussions
- Data: Make research data downloadable for re-analysis and further use
Pt 3: Open academia spotlight: Textbooks
Let's consider the problem and opportunity of textbooks in light of the principles and strategies of open academia. Most subjects taught at universities use proprietary textbooks, in part because of the lack of high quality, free and open textbooks. Proprietary textbook content has generally received more development time and resources than free alternatives, so they present initially as attractive options. However, proprietary textbooks come with several downsides which become increasingly obvious to staff, students and the public as one works with them. The issues with proprietary textbooks include:
- Exorbitant financial cost typically paid to a small number of large multinational publishing companies (whose main motivation is profit-making).
- All rights reserved proprietary material (typically text and images) which allowslimited re-use beyond lectures and tutorials.
- Undertones or overtones of Western hegemony - or at least often lacking in authentic localisation.
Teaching with closed, proprietary textbooks builds creates a deflating inflexibility despite the considerable cost involved. Proprietary textbooks costs approx. AU$600-$800 per full-time student per semester. Therefore an academic institution with 10,000 full-time students leads to approx. $12 to $16 million dollars per annum for publishers who permit limited use of restricted content. Storehousing of academic knowledge has been almost completely privatised, especially when we consider the similar story with commercial academic journals.
An an alternative, what if this money was used for the development of open, collaborative textbooks which could be readily adapted and printed locally at low-cost? This would require an institutional commitment to a more open approach to teaching, authorship and sharing.
Academia is largely predicated largely upon ideals of open sharing about knowledge, information and skills – at least in principle. However, normative academic practices emphasise closedness. Nevertheless, there are encouraging, bold steps towards openness being taken by governments, the public service, progressive institutions and many individuals. Academic institutions are being invited to champion open practices (open access, open licensing, open formats, free software and open governance) and to thereby vitalise their role and relevance in future society.
Gillard, J. (2009). Universities Australia Conference - 4 March 2009 – speech. Universities Australia Conference, Wednesday, 4 March, 2009, Canberra, ACT, Australia.
Neill, J. T. (2010). Going naked – Openism and freedom in academia. A 15-minute presentation about open academic philosophy and practice with responses by Leonard Low, Leigh Blackall.13:30, Friday 5th March, 2010, Hothouse (1C32), University of Canberra, ACT, Australia.