A Pivot to Online—or to For-Profit Higher Ed?

The Times, to borrow former executive editor Howell Raines’ favorite phrase, is flooding the zone with its coverage of higher ed’s online future:

  1. “Remember the MOOCs? After Near-Death, They’re Booming” (today)
  2. “The Future of College Is Online, and It’s Cheaper” (yesterday)
  3. “It’s the Year 2120. MasterClass Is the Only School Left” (yesterday)

All three pieces have the same upbeat message: Online learning is the future.

That may well be, but will the system remain non-profit? The resurgent MOOC providers (edX excepted) are venture-backed for-profits. The online degrees offered at traditional universities, the ones at Georgia and Illinois touted in two of the articles, are built atop the for-profit Coursera. So we may, if we’re not careful, swap out more than the classroom when we make the online shift.

‘Transitioning punctum books to Open Source Infrastructure’

Vincent W.J. van Gerven Oei, on Punctum’s transition to open source software throughout its workflows:

Yes, there are open source solutions out there.

Yes, these are similar or even better than the commercial ones you pay subscription fees for.

Yes, the transition is possible and awesome.

And most importantly of all: you will have control over your own data. When it comes to the fruits of intellectual labor, nothing appears to me to be more important than that.

The post is six months old, but the whole transition—including OS transition sherpa Cloud68—was featured at the Open Publishing Fest last week.

‘The unintended consequences of Open Access publishing – And possible futures’

Julie MacLeavy, Richard Harris, and Ron Johnston writing in Geoforum:

open access to knowledge will not be not achieved, nor the inequalities in the production and reproduction of knowledge that stem from costly journal subscriptions solved, by the simple transfer of publishing costs from audience to authors. The current hybrid model is little better, allowing ‘those who have’ to publish openly in a journal (under a Creative Commons licence) whilst ‘those who haven’t’ have to make do with traditional copyright and access restrictions supplemented by a pre-print version hosted by their institution.

Especially, one might add, when the visibility benefits of OA accrue to ‘those who have’—who tend to be scholars working in a handful of wealthy countries.

The geographers drop their clinical tone in the piece‘s closing lines:

The dissemination of academic research findings should be handled by non- profit organisations, such as learned societies, largely through relatively low-cost web-based publication linked to search engines that enable readers readily to identify and access relevant papers to their work, indeed to be informed of their existence through information media, such as the Table of Contents e-mails now deployed by the large capitalist publishing empires. Academic researchers would then no longer be giving away their intellectual property to profiteers but could get the same service from bodies dedicated to making research papers freely available at very low cost – with any surplus from such activity being invested into knowledge-creation rather than shareholders’ dividends. With such options the production and dissemination of knowledge would be removed from the biases inherent in the current capitalist model and universities could return to their former independence from such predation.

This nonprofit, mission-oriented future is precisely what Plan S looks increasingly likely to foreclose.

‘The commercial model of academic publishing underscoring Plan S weakens the existing open access ecosystem in Latin America’

Eduardo Aguado López and Arianna Becerril García, in a new LSE Impact post on Plan S:

From our perspective, Open Access is about scholars taking control of their own labour and future – not reforming the for-profit sector. Attempts to deliver “transparent pricing” and “transformative agreements” are indicative of the way in which Plan S has been largely shaped by the interests of corporate publishers and ultimately not those of the academic community, especially the academic community outside of the Global North. It’s discouraging to admit that the main critique of Plan S is accurate: That it is a Eurocentric proposal that aims to remove paywalls to achieve open access, but which does not seek to reduce the earnings and concentration of power over academic publishing enjoyed by a small number of commercial publishers. As such, Plan S resembles an accounting project, albeit a potentially transparent one: shifting funds from subscriptions towards article processing charges (APCs), whilst leaving the current communication system largely intact.

That’s Plan S in a nut—and the effort, while well-intentioned, really does threaten the Latin American model and the very prospect of a nonprofit, academy-led ecosystem.

Unsub and the Big Deal

From Lisa Hinchliffe’s Scholarly Kitchen’s Q & A with the co-founders of Unsub:

Unsub is a tool that helps librarians analyze and optimize their serials subscriptions; it’s like cost-per-use (CPU) analysis on steroids. Using Unsub, librarians can get better value for their shrinking subscription dollar — often by replacing expensive, leaky Big Deals with smaller, more custom collections of a-la-carte titles.


We’ve received off-the-record feedback from several publishers amounting to this: “Unsub is going to kill our subscription model…thanks! We’ve wanted to flip, but haven’t had the courage yet.”

I’m heating up my popcorn.

Jeff Pooley is professor of media & communication at Muhlenberg College and director of mediastudies.press, an open access scholarly publisher.

pooley@muhlenberg.edu | press@mediastudies.press

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