The top 9 myths about OER publishing

Questions and answersIn a recent blog post, we explored some of the questions authors are asking about open textbooks. In this post we have continued the discussion with several leaders in the open textbook movement to identify some of the common misconceptions associated with open educational resources (OER) publishing.

Below, Barbara Illowsky (co-author of one of the first open textbooks, Introductory Statistics), Amy Hofer (Open Oregon Educational Resources), Apurva Ashok and Zoe Wake Hyde (Rebus Foundation), and Nicole Finkbeiner (OpenStax, Rice University), share the top nine myths they have identified, and the facts related to each.

Myth #1 – OER are digital and only available online

Fact: Hofer shares that “A common misconception is that OER are online. In fact, the O stands for ‘open.’ The open license gives permission to redistribute in any format, including print. There are many valid reasons that students and faculty may want access to low-cost print copies, and that’s possible when using OER.”

Ashok and Wake Hyde add, “OER often include editable and offline formats in addition to web-based or digital ones. OER can even be used in print – either through printing a PDF locally or ordering through a print on demand supplier.”

Myth #2 – The quality of OER is lower than that of a traditional publisher

Fact: Ashok and Wake Hyde share that “Non-publisher or non-traditional publishing organizations such as Rebus Community, Open SUNY, BCcampus, OpenStax, and others produce high-quality OER through alternative publishing models, that are widely adopted and respected.”

According to Finkbeiner:

“OpenStax OER meet the same content quality thresholds of a traditional publisher text. OpenStax OER:

  • Meet standard scope and sequence requirements
  • Are written by experts in the field
  • Are extensively peer-reviewed by peers and industry experts
  • Go through a rigorous editorial review process
  • Are regularly updated with errata and industry updates

We ask faculty to evaluate the quality of OpenStax for themselves. And, after doing so, over 18,000 faculty have chosen to assign an OpenStax textbook (source: Faculty-reported adoptions of OpenStax books). Our books are being used in 16.5% of introductory courses and 48% of colleges and universities are using OpenStax content this year (Source: Openstax internal statistics).”

Finally, Hofer cautions, “I think that we can sometimes over-focus on the course materials, which are really secondary to the instructional design and the instructor themselves when it comes to student learning.”

Myth #3 – The only benefit of OER is that it’s free

Fact: Although the absence of a price tag is initially an appealing reason to consider OER, the benefits extend beyond that. Finkbeiner states:

“With OER, students have the freedom to access their content wherever they are, whenever they want, however they learn.

  • Wherever they want examples:
    • Different formats for different devices and situations (iPad version during labs, print while at home, etc.)
    • They can share the content legally on social networks and public forums (group wikis, etc.)
    • They can share and utilize the content in blended learning environments
  • Whenever they want examples
    • Instant, unlimited access
    • Permanent access, they own the content forever
  • However they learn examples:
    • They can use the content in their work legally
    • They can make videos/class assignments legally
    • Can put the content in a format that meets their study habits (like copying and pasting parts of the content to create a study guide)
  • I think it’s also helpful to mention why post-course access to the core content matters:
    • If courses span multiple semesters, students will have to re-purchase the content.
    • Students have to re-purchase content if they retake the course (although some let you retake for free).
    • They could need the core content as a reference material for more advanced courses (for example, med school students use the OpenStax A&P book as a reference manual for their advanced courses).
    • They could use the content for studying for higher education entrance exams & certification exams (I’m shuddering reliving studying for my GRE and having to memorize the circumference of a circle again, but alas, I had to…)
    • Using the content in their future career

Also, with OER, faculty have the freedom to use the content to match their teaching

  • Every student has immediate and unlimited access
  • Standard scope and sequence makes it easy to adopt
  • Variety of technology partners allow choice
  • Permission free use, editing & adaptation
  • Variety of formats/partners eliminates one size fits all
  • Ownership of the content. Forever.
  • Moving to a new edition is optional.
  • Faculty teaching at multiple institutions can create one master set of lecture materials that they can use at all campuses.”

Ashok and Wake Hyde add, “While affordability is a powerful argument, it doesn’t quite capture all of the advantages of moving to OER. Instructors benefit by being able to tailor the content to their course outlines, rather than changing their courses to fit an existing text. Instructors can also localize OER to better suit their classroom contexts and speak more effectively to their students’ experiences. As well, OER have been shown to improve retention rates in classrooms, as students have access to the content from day one – and for long after a course has ended!”

Myth #4 – OER can’t really be free for faculty and students to use

Fact: Most OER is free to faculty and students as a result of outside funding source support in development. According to Finkbeiner:

“OpenStax OER textbooks are funded by generous philanthropic funders so that faculty and students don’t have to pay for the content.

The following versions of OpenStax books are completely free to anyone, including faculty and students, to use:

  • Online view
  • .pdf (downloadable, file never expires)
  • Amazon Kindle

We also offer low-cost print editions ($29-$65 depending on the title and thickness) and an iBooks version ($6.99). These are optional—faculty and students are not required to purchase them. Approximately 10% of students opt to purchase a print copy.”

Myth #5 – If it’s free, it’s OER

Open Educational Resources are teaching, learning and research materials in any medium – digital or otherwise – that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.

(Source: William and Flora Hewlett Foundation)

Fact: Not everything that is free is OER, and not everything that’s OER is free. Finkbeiner explains below.

Note that in the above definition (which is the common standard definition for OER used by most groups), it states that OER are materials “that reside in the public domain or have been released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions.”

A common misconception is that library materials are OER. Library materials can be free or, due to a paid subscription, are free for faculty and students to use. However, if the materials are not in the public domain or “released under an open license that permits no-cost access, use, adaptation and redistribution by others with no or limited restrictions” they do not meet the definition of OER.

Similarly, online resources such as TED Talks are free to use. However, since they are licensed under a non-derivatives license, they also don’t meet the definition of OER because the ND license does not allow for adaptation.

Not all openly licensed content is free: for example, an OpenStax textbook print copy costs—you pay for the cost to print, whether you buy a copy from your bookstore or pay for ink and paper for your personal printer—but the content itself is free and can be accessed for free online. Also, many companies, such as homework and courseware provide services around OER content for a fee.

Myth #6 – OER are not designed for wide-spread adoption

Fact: Not all OER materials are created by “lone-wolf academics” or for “niche, one-off courses”. Ashok and Wake Hyde share the following facts.

“OER are often created by teams of instructors or academics, often with institutional support and funding, and sometimes even in collaboration with large communities of instructors around the world. Some OER are also co-created with students and can be the outcome of a bigger open pedagogy project.

While OER does provide opportunities for grassroots publishing, there are also plenty of efforts dedicated to creating core content for in-demand disciplines, and for high enrolment courses. Part of the power of OER is that they can be used as is, or repurposed or adapted for multiple courses, meaning creators are often thinking about how they can lay a foundation that others can build on and adapt for their purposes. OpenStax textbooks are great examples of books created for high enrolment courses that are regularly adapted and localized. Another example is The Open Anthology of Earlier American Literature, edited by Tim Robbins, which can be used for a survey literature course or a dedicated American Literature course. There is also an effort underway in the California Community College system to collaborate on a suite of eight core texts in Early Childhood Education.”

Myth #7 – OER are not peer-reviewed, contain no ancillary materials, and aren’t updated

Fact: Ashok and Wake Hyde tell us “Peer review is an essential part of the OER publishing process, and the traditional double-blind review process can still take place with OER. Many open textbooks also include a review statement, outlining the process for the particular resource, or some other marker certifying the same to assure the high quality of the resource. As well, a number of OER repositories either include review as a criteria for submission, or once submitted, coordinate post-publication faculty reviews of OER (like the Open Textbook Library).”

Illowsky adds that “more and more faculty are contributing ancillaries to the community. OpenStax posts a list of ancillaries that faculty can obtain. OERCommons.org is one of the largest, if not the very largest, repository for OER ancillaries, as well as being a collaborative platform for instructor collaboration of OER.”

Finkbeiner shares that “Through our sustainability model, OpenStax has the funding to regularly update our OER books and do full revisions of our content when it is pedagogically necessary to do so.”

Myth #8 – College and university bookstores do not support OER

Fact: According to Finkbeiner, “The National Association of College Stores hosts a Textbook Affordability Conference each year and both Barnes and Noble and Follett offer support to faculty and institutions who adopt OER.”

She also shares that “OpenStax recommends that college and university bookstores stock print copies for those students who do wish to buy them. This is especially helpful if a student wants a print copy and the student has financial aid or scholarship funding that they can use at the bookstore.”

Myth #9 – Courses that use OER may not count for college transfer credit

Fact: Illowsky worked with the California Community Colleges and California State University Chancellor’s Office over ten years ago to ensure that high quality OER will not null the articulation agreements between the systems.

According to her, the CSU Chancellor’s Office has the following posting on its website, discussing this issue, as follows:

ARTICULATION.  Will courses using OER in the CA Community Colleges transfer to the CSU?

The articulation statement from the CSU and UC (2017) is as follows:

  • It is fine to use assembled materials or Open Educational Resources, so long as they’re stable and publicly available as published textbooks (and not a list of links).
  • All CSU and UC campus departments consider the content of textbooks when reviewing articulation proposals from the CCCs. The use of online texts is reviewed by campuses on a case-by-case basis for articulation with CCCs.
  • There are multiple CCC courses that use online texts that are approved for CSU- and UC-transferability, and for articulation with CSU and UC campuses.
  • Some CSU and UC campus departments use online texts themselves.
    • Nancy Purcille, Transfer Articulation Coordinator, University of California, Office of the President
    • Alison M. Wrynn, Ph.D., State University Associate Dean, Academic Programs, California State University, Office of the Chancellor

Other myths about OER

TAA member, Dave Dillon, suggests reviewing OER Mythbusting from SPARC for more myths and facts related to OER publishing.

What other myths have you heard about OER? Comment below to continue the discussion.


Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.