Universities only care about sharing if the price is right

Photo by Alex Jones on Unsplash. Public Domain.

Lindsey Tepe from New America wrote a good analysis of the contentious comments submitted to the Department of Education’s notice of proposed rule-making, which, if enacted, would require that digital education materials created with ED’s direct competitive grant funds be openly licensed for the public to freely use, share, and build upon. The policy is reasonable and draws upon the Department of Labor precedent of requiring CC BY licenses for the digital education and training materials created within its TAACCCT grant program. I helped draft the comments submitted by Creative Commons (where I work). I won’t rehash the arguments we provided in defense of ED’s proposed policy, but you can view them here.

The comments submitted by universities and the higher education associations are curious. At the outset you might assume that universities would enthusiastically support an open licensing policy because it would increase access to and reuse of educational resources and software created on the taxpayers dime, and that such a sharing policy would naturally align with the teaching and learning goals of higher education in America. If you assume this, you — like me, would be wrong.

The comments submitted by a group of higher education association including the Association of American Universities (AAU), the Association of Public Land-grant Universities (APLU), the Association of University Technology Managers (AUTM), and the Council on Governmental Relations (COGR) are extremely negative toward the ED’s proposed open licensing rule change. As Tepe observes, their opposition to the draft policy seems to revolve around technology transfer. A move to increased access and sharing of publicly funded educational materials and software would, as this group writes, “limit the ability of our institutions to transfer tested and validated educational technologies to the private sector.” Several major universities echoed the comments provided by AAU, et al.

And I still cannot believe they wrote the following in their comments — seemingly pointing to the OSTP public access policy as a ceiling for a progressive handling of publicly funded research materials (emphasis mine):

The OSTP policy directive is an excellent example of public access policy, advancing public benefit by expanding access to federally funded research while appropriately accommodating journal publisher subscription business models.

Sure, the OSTP public access policy is a terrific step in the right direction. Once the policy is up and running, it will actually increase access to federally funded research and datasets. But then the universities go on to say that it’s important to protect the commercial journal publishing industry? Isn’t this the same industry that is sucking universities (or at least university libraries) dry trying to pay for the increasingly expensive access to subscription journals? Such a statement from the most powerful university associations is ridiculous, and shameful. I wish universities were more interested in increasing access to education and less concerned with the demands of their corporate keepers.