OERs, OARs, OATs and The Rule of Capture

by Patricia Erwin-Ploog, Asst. Dean of Library Services, Sr. Lecturer

We are on the cusp of a global revolution in teaching and learning. Educators worldwide are developing a vast pool of educational resources on the Internet, open and free for all to use. These educators are creating a world where each and every person on earth can access and contribute to the sum of all human knowledge.” (Cape Town Open Education Declaration, 2007).


Today, most Open Educational Resources (OERs) begin life as digital free resources. OERs may include multimedia, syllabi, lecture notes, and some software. They are intended to be used by teachers, and modified as needed to meet student learning needs. The original goal of the OER movement was to bring educational resources to developing areas of world previously shut out from more traditional modes of education. Riding on the coattails of the growth of MOCs, the OER movement has gained traction within the U.S. as a means of providing quality educational resources at a minimal cost to institutions and students. Some great examples of OERs are found in Merlot, “a curated collection of free and open online teaching, learning, and faculty development services contributed and used by an international education community.”


“Open Access [Resources] (OARs) is the free, immediate, online availability of research articles, coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment.” ( SPARC) OARs live a much murkier existence than OERs. Over the past decade, Open Access has become central to advancing the interests of researchers, scholars, students, businesses, and the public – as well as librarians. Traditionally, OARs is an economic term that refers to those common-property resources that are free to all, such as water. When OARs become scarce they begin to fall under the ‘rule of capture.’ Those who capture the resource control the distribution and use. If OERs are the common-property resources of the education world, OARs have been until recently captured resources. Controlled and managed by publishers, libraries, and professional organizations, use came at a price. That price might be enrollment in a course, purchase of a journal, or membership dues. This approach has been based on the premise that quality information is not free, and someone always pays. This belief is being challenged through the creation of open-access repositories developed by academic institutions to hold the research products of their faculty and research scholars.

There is tremendous opportunity to provide free scholarly resources to users, but significant hurtles to overcome. They include how to address copyright laws that have not kept pace with the digital world, the link between the formal publishing process and tenure, and finally the somewhat arcane process of peer-review- heavily invested in by scholars and traditional publishers of scholarly materials. The rise in institutional repositories as a means of providing free digital access to the intellectual activity of a research institution, such as a university, is seen as a significant way universities can promote the value of their scholarly activities on a global stage. One of the largest of these repositories is Bepress’s Digital Commons Network (DCN). While users may find the use of the DCN a bit difficult to navigate, it contains a treasure-trove of free scholarly resources to support the GSC curriculum.


Where do textbooks fit into this picture? The traditional textbook may be a slowly dying phenomenon, kept alive by publishers who are struggling with how to craft new business models in the digital world. The present situation with textbooks includes the vast majority of current-edition textbooks available in paper format, or in a digital format that may be offered more cheaply than in paper. Traditionally, academic libraries have not had textbooks as part of the collections. While a single digital copy, available to multiple simultaneous users via the library’s electronic catalog would be ideal, use-restrictions often do not allow an academic library to provide the resource in that manner.

There is hope this is all changing. Funded by a FIPSE grant, the Open Access Textbook Project defines OATs as “college textbooks or course materials in electronic format that are licensed under an open license, which is an irrevocable intellectual property license that grants the public the right to access, customize, and distribute copyrighted material” (S. 1714, 2009). In other words, OATs will become OERs.

For More Information See:

GSC Library & Information Commons