This is been an interesting week. Yesterday I made the decision to formally withdraw a chapter from an edited volume about themes for teaching Introductory Psychology. It was not an easy decision because I had put a lot of thought and energy into the chapter, made the necessary revisions, and even saw it accepted by the editors more than a year ago (a change in editorial staff at Cengage prompted the massive delay). So you can imagine my surprise a few weeks ago when I received a very curious email from a “Product Manager” at Cengage. It started out nicely enough, saying nice things about OER in my discipline:
“I’m familiar with some of the platforms but my favorite (and the one I most worried about) is Noba. Obviously the scholarship is first-rate but I like the organization and the way it hyperlinks too. It’s a pleasant user experience. I believe I would give it a 2nd look if I were an instructor.”
Full disclosure: I serve as an Associate Editor with NOBA, so you might reasonably suspect this is the equivalent of “hey, have you been working out?” On the other hand, why yes, I have been working out. Nice of you to notice.
But the email went on to request a series of changes that would make my previously-accepted chapter more palatable to the publisher. In the PM’s words, “We would like to see a few more value statements made around traditional publishers’ offerings.” Yeah, no conflict of interest there.
These changes (detailed later by the editors) included:
- Toning down my critique of traditional publisher practices. This included references to the 1041% increase in textbook costs and the prevalence of “new editions” with only cosmetic changes.
- Including a description of their new business model: PM: “Publishers are not interested in selling hardbound textbooks. Our economics discipline team isn’t even going to publish them next year. The prices are hiked 33% at the bookstore and they are bought and resold 9 times. That’s not a good business for us in 2016.”
- Adding strong cautionary language about OER such as “and the academic buyer (i.e., instructor) should beware”
I initially attempted to work with the editors, checking to ensure that these requests reflected their own judgement (they were not copied on that email from the PM, although they had sent me an email a month earlier requesting similarly-themed revisions, some of which I made). I even indicated a willingness to look at revisions that they would write (and that the PM would vet). Ultimately, however, the changes they felt were necessary to appease the publisher (for whom this book is evidently a “service project”) were a bridge too far for my conscience to travel.
In reflecting on this experience I have been thinking more broadly about change and how and when it is possible to introduce it. I have seen how change is sometimes more easily introduced from the outside (I think any internal pioneer can attest to how much more enthusiastically an outsider with the identical message is embraced). But despite this perceptual barrier there is great value in fighting the good fight to introduce change from within. Indeed, it is precisely my knowledge that the volume will be read by many traditionalists that leaves me with a tinge of disappointment at having had to withdraw my chapter.
I face a similar dilemma with my research: Do I publish my research on open education in more traditional (paywalled) journals that are read by colleagues who are unaware of OER? Are exorbitant article processing charges (APCs) the price of avoiding hypocrisy?
I would love to pledge an unwavering commitment to only review for and publish in (truly) open access journals (I am almost there), but I also want to speak directly to the unconverted. And that might just involve periodically soiling myself by supporting the very publishers whose nefarious practices have catalyzed the birth of the open access movement. Of course I recognize that the Gold OA option–tainted as it is–is one of privilege, granted to me via an OER research fellowship funded by the Hewlett foundation (how does anyone without a source of funding pay those APCs?). But I confess that even while I do not have to personally bear the brunt of this cost right now, paying them at all still makes me feel slightly unclean as I balance pragmatism with idealism.
We really do need a cleanse for openwashing.
Post script (June 7, 2016): Although I sincerely appreciate the supportive comments I have received in response to this post and the article in Insider Higher Ed, I fear that one thing may have got lost in the noise: That despite my disagreement with them on what constitutes a balanced perspective on the textbook industry, I greatly respect and admire the two editors who have certainly poured a lot of energy into this volume. I believe that they accepted my proposed theme for the chapter because they saw value in it. They subsequently made many excellent suggestions that helped me to improve my writing. And they have always been supportive and encouraging when I speak at psychology conferences. I would not want this story to cast aspersions on their integrity.