Schrodinger’s OER

Stephen shared some thoughts this morning on a recent post of mine. I want to clarify the underlying source of our primary disagreement. Stephen writes:

Wiley’s second point is like saying ‘we can’t destroy it, no matter how we use it, because it’s non rivilrous [sic]’. But openness can be destroyed; I have discussed the phenomenon of ‘conversion‘ in the past, and it is this (and not some unthinking prejeduce) that causes me to distrust commercial publishers and other bad actors.

In the link in that quote, Stephen writes “The ‘conversion’ of an open educational resource is a modification of the resource, or conditions related to the resource, such that it is in some way transformed from being an open educational resource to something that is not an open educational resource.”

Stephen’s fears of conversion are possible in part because his definition of OER begins with access:

Access is most frequently left off the definition of OERs, and yet is the most important. Nothing else follows if you cannot access the resource, that is to say, obtain the resource (or a copy of the resource) for oneself. Fundamental to a resource being open, in my mind, is the ability of anyone to access it.

What is unwritten here, but clear in his further discussion, is that Stephen is not talking about your ability to access a copy of the resource. It appears that he means that any copy of an OER placed outside your reach ceases to be OER (constituting the “change in the conditions related to the resource” mentioned above).

As I have written recently, including the idea of access in the definition of OER is problematic because it inevitably results in the same resource simultaneously both being an OER and not being an OER. Let me give a concrete example.

The textbook Concepts of Biology published by OpenStax is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license. It is available for download from

I think that Stephen and I both agree that the copy of the textbook available at the download link above is an OER. Where our thinking diverges, as I understand it, is what happens if I actually download a copy of the textbook to my desktop computer. Because my definition of OER is grounded solely in permissions, the resource continues to be an OER because those permissions persist after the download.

However, I believe that Stephen would say that the copy of Concepts of Biology on my desktop is not an OER – because he doesn’t have access to it. The same would be true for copies of Concepts of Biology on a thumb drive, printed and placed in a backpack, uploaded to a learning management system, or in any other circumstance where Stephen didn’t have access to them. These would all have experienced a “conversion” into not-OER because (1) he no longer has access to them and (2) access to the resource is “most important” in his definition of OER.

On the assumption that thousands of copies of Concepts of Biology have been downloaded over the years, Stephen’s definition leads us to conclude that the overwhelming majority of copies of Concepts of Biology in the world are not OER – because neither Stephen nor I (nor you) have access to them. In this way of thinking, only a very tiny minority of the copies of Concepts of Biology in existence are OER.

When access is baked into the definition of OER, OpenStax’s Concepts of Biology is an OER and it isn’t an OER – it’s both simultaneously. It’s not entirely unlike Schrodinger’s famous cat, which is both alive and dead at the same time. Actually, when access is baked into the definition of OER, “is Concepts of Biology an OER?” is a meaningless question. To make the question meaningful you would need to ask, “is this specific copy of Concepts of Biology an OER from the perspective of this specific person?” I think that makes the concept of OER far more complicated than it needs to be.

When someone asks “is such and such resource an OER?” they’re asking whether or not it’s licensed in a way that gives them free permission to engage in the 5R activities. That’s a much more straightforward – and useful – conception of OER. If a resource is licensed in a way that grants you permission to engage in the 5R activities, and grants you those permissions for free, it’s an open educational resource (OER).