open content politics research sustainability

An Idea for the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative

During his 2016 State of the Union Address, President Obama called on Vice President Biden to lead a new, national “Moonshot” initiative to eliminate cancer as we know it. Today, the White House is announcing a new $1 billion initiative to jumpstart this work. (fact sheet)

The country – the world, really – is fighting the war against cancer with both hands tied behind its back. This work is quintessentially cutting-edge science, and the lifeblood of work in any advanced scientific field is research. Cutting off access to research results – either the seminal (foundational) research or the very latest findings published earlier this morning – is a certain way to kill this kind of endeavor. When researchers, scientists, and others working on a project can’t find out was has already been tried, what has been proven to work, and what has already been shown to fail, they are doomed to spin frenetically in an eddy of frustrated impotence, forever.

The overwhelming majority of research on cancer is owned by publishers of academic journals like Elsevier and Springer. More specifically, publishers own the copyright to the research articles that report the results of the research funded by governments, foundations, and corporations. By owning the copyrights, publishers control who is and who isn’t allowed to read the research. And the toll they demand for permission to read this research is unconscionably high. (When an institution wealthy as Harvard says it can no longer afford the price of journals, you know there’s a problem.)

So here we are, trying to defeat cancer – one of the most research-intensive tasks ever undertaken – without permission to read the research on cancer. But it’s not just reading that publishers restrict. Publishers also use copyright to prevent translation of articles into other languages, and restrict data-mining of the articles by algorithms that can potentially discover patterns and connections that humans might never find.

What is the single highest impact thing the federal government can do to speed the pace of research, improve the quality of research, and facilitate “the end of cancer as we know it?” Insure that that anyone and everyone who wants to work on the cancer problem can read the research (including non-English speakers and computers).

But how can this be accomplished, you ask, seeing as the journals already own the copyrights to the journal articles? Here are two proposals.

1. Publishers are willing to release research articles they own rights to as open access in exchange for a fee. One way to open the scholarly record on cancer research is for the NIH (or another entity) to simply offer to pay this fee for “all” cancer-related articles. When they make this offer, they should demand a steep discount for two reasons. First, they’re buying in bulk. Second, they’ve already paid for the overwhelming majority of the research reported in these articles. For example, NIH invests between $105,000 and $120,000 in research funding per article written, while the Wellcome Trust estimates that publishers of high quality journals invest about $2750 to publish that article. A typical open access fee runs between $1500 and $3000. I think the NIH should offer around $10 per article.

How much money would we be talking about? It’s difficult to know exactly how many articles we’re talking about, since publishers won’t permit you to read articles that look like they would contain the answer. (But never fear! For only $30 we can rent the article for 24 hours and find the answer! See how this madness makes research impossible?)

An open access article on the NIH’s Deputy Director for Extramural Research‘s blog suggests that in the last 30 years or so the NIH has funded research resulting in about 1.5M articles. To make the numbers easy, let’s assume that pre-1985 they supported research resulting in the same number of papers, for a grand total of 3M articles. If every single piece of research they’ve ever funded was about cancer, the cost of opening them all at $10/article would be $30M. Even at $100 per article the number is only $300M. Given that NIH is projecting that the costs of cancer care (based on changes in the US population and cancer trends) will reach $158 BILLION annually by 2020, either of these prices is a bargain basement deal if they can move the needle – which I believe the could.

This offer to buy the open access option for a huge group of articles gives publishers – whose only competition in terms of their utterly abysmal reputation is Comcast – a chance to look like the good guys for the first time in forever. Conversely, it also gives them the opportunity to stand up and defend their choice to delay a cure for cancer for the sake of their profits on the 6:00 news and on the front page of the New York Times.

2. If (when) publishers decline to be part of the solution by providing a significant discount on open access fees, the feds should invoke eminent domain. Here’s how it would work:

Strong copyright advocates have long claimed that creative works are “property” and therefore should be afforded all of property’s protections and other considerations under the law. They propagate this notion by encouraging us to use the term “intellectual property.” Let’s play that idea out for a moment. Adapting language from Wikipedia for the sake of expediency:

Eminent domain is the power of a state or a national government to take private property for public use. The property may be taken either for government use or by delegation to third parties, who will devote it to public or civic use. The power of governments to take private real or personal property has always existed in the United States, as an inherent attribute of sovereignty. This power reposes in the legislative branch of the government and may not be exercised unless the legislature has authorized its use by statutes that specify who may use it and for what purposes. The legislature may take private property by passing an Act transferring title to the government. The property owner may then seek compensation by suing in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims… Its use was limited by the Takings Clause in the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in 1791, which reads, “…nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” The Fifth Amendment did not create the national government’s right to use the eminent domain power, it simply limited it to public use.

Has there ever been a better public use argument for taking private property under the government’s eminent domain power than in speeding the cure for cancer?

If we can invoke eminent domain to build a road, can’t we can invoke it to cure cancer?

As the Fifth Amendment notes, the law requires “just compensation” when private property is taken in this manner. If I were the government, I would start the conversation at $5 per article because I’d be frustrated that we didn’t just settle the whole issue at $10 per without the fight. Would publishers press the issue? What do you suppose a rigorous economic analysis would reveal the value of a 20, 30, or 50-year-old article about cancer to be?

Ryan Merkley has been doing some great writing about open access and the National Cancer Moonshot Initiative which is forward looking – encouraging us to ensure that all future research on cancer is freely and openly available immediately upon publication for people to read, translate, and data mine. His recommendations – which are terrific – are the very least we should do.

Which is more of a moonshot – curing cancer, or making the entire record of relevant research open access? Which do you really think we have a better chance of doing?

open content open education politics research sustainability textbooks

A Response to ‘OER and the Future of Publishing’

I recently had the wonderful opportunity to participate on a panel about OER at the Knewton Education Symposium. Earlier this week, Knewton CEO Jose Ferreira blogged about ‘OER and the Future of Publishing’ for EdSurge, briefly mentioning the panel. I was surprised by his post, which goes out of its way to reassure publishers that OER will not break the textbook industry.

Much of the article is spent criticizing the low production values, lack of instructional design, and missing support that often characterize OER. The article argues that there is a potential role for publishers to play in each of these service categories, leveraging OER to lower their costs and improve their products. But it’s been over 15 years since the first openly licensed educational materials were published, and major publishers have yet to publish a single textbook based on pre-existing OER. Why?

Exclusivity, Publishing, and OER

The primary reason is that publishers are – quite rationally – committed to the business models that made them incredibly successful businesses. And the core of that model is exclusivity – the contractual right to be the only entity that can offer the print or digital manifestation of Professor Y’s expertise on subject X. Exclusivity is the foundation bedrock of the publishing industry, and no publisher will ever meaningfully invest in building up the reputation and brand of a body of work which is openly licensed. Publisher B would simply sit on the sidelines while Publisher A exhausts its marketing budget persuading the world that it’s version of Professor Y’s open materials are the best in their field. Once Professor Y’s brand is firmly associated with high quality, Publisher B will release it’s own version of Professor Y’s open materials, free-riding on Publisher A’s marketing spend. Publisher A’s marketing efforts actually end up promoting Publisher B’s competing product in a very real way. No, publishers will never put OER at the core of their offerings, because open licensing – guaranteed nonexclusivity – is the antithesis of their entire industrial model. Some playing around in the supplementals market is the closest major publishers will ever come to engaging with OER.

New Models Enabled by OER

However, we are seeing the emergence of a new kind of organization, which is neither invested in preserving existing business models nor burdened with the huge content creation, distribution, and sales infrastructure that a large commercial publisher must support. (This sizable infrastructure, that once represented an insurmountable barrier to entry, is quickly becoming a millstone around the neck of big publishers facing the threat of OER.) The new breed of organization is only too happy to take the role of IBM or Red Hat and provide all the services necessary to make OER a viable alternative to commercial offerings. I had to chuckle a little reading the advice to publishers Jose provides in his post, because that list of services could almost have been copied and pasted my company’s website (Lumen Learning): iterative cycles of instructional design informed by data, integration services, faculty support, etc. I agree wholeheartedly that these are the kinds of services that must be offered to make OER a true competitor to commercial textbooks in the market – but I disagree with the idea that publishers will ever be willing to offer them. That realization is part of what led me to quit a tenured faculty job in a prestigious graduate program to co-found Lumen Learning.

All that said, the emergence of these organizations won’t spell the end of large textbook publishers as we know them. Instead, that distinction will go to the simplest possible metric by which we could measure the impact of the educational materials US students spend billions of dollars per year on: learning outcomes per dollar.

Learning Outcomes per Dollar

No educator would ever consciously make a choice that harmed student learning in order to save money. But what if you could save students significant amounts of money without doing them any academic harm? Going further, what if you could simultaneously save them significant money and improve their learning outcomes? Research on OER is showing, time and again, that this latter scenario is entirely possible. One brief example will demonstrate the point.

A recent article published in Educause Review describes Mercy College’s recent change from a popular math textbook and online practice system bundle provided by a major publisher (~$180 per student), to OER and an open source online practice system. Here are some of the results they reported after a successful pilot semester using OER in 6 sections of basic math:

  • At pilot’s end, Mercy’s Mathematics Department chair announced that, starting in fall 2012, all 27 sections (695 students) in basic mathematics would use [OER].
  • Between spring 2011 [no sections using OER] and fall 2012 [all sections using OER], the math pass rate increased from 48.40 percent to 68.90 percent.
  • Algebra courses dropped their previously used licenses and costly math textbooks and resources, saving students a total of $125,000 the first year.

By switching all sections of basic math to OER, Mercy College saved its students $125,000 in one year and changed their pass rate from 48 to 69 percent – a 44% improvement.

If you read the article carefully, you’ll see that Mercy actually received a fair amount of support in their implementation of OER, which was funded through a grant. So let’s be honest and put the full cost-related details on the table. Mercy (and many other schools) are still receiving the support they previously received for free through their participation in the Kaleidoscope Open Course Initiative. Lumen Learning, whose personnel led the KOCI, now provides those same services to Mercy and other schools for $5 per enrollment.

So let’s do the learning outcomes per dollar math:

  • Popular commercial offering: 48.4% students passing / $180 textbook and online system cost per student = 0.27% students passing per required textbook dollar
  • OER offering: 68.9% students passing / $5 textbook and online system cost per student = 13.78% students passing per required textbook dollar

For the number I call the “OER Impact Factor,” we simply divide these two ratios with OER on top:

  • 13.78% students passing per required textbook dollar / 0.27% students passing per required textbook dollar = 51.03

This basic computation shows that, in Mercy’s basic math example, using OER led to an over 50x increase (i.e., a 5000% improvement) in percentage passing per dollar. No matter how you look at it, that’s a radical improvement.

If similar performance data were available for two construction companies, and a state procurement officer awarded a contract to the vendor that produces demonstrably worse results while costing significantly more, that person would lose his job, if not worse. (As an aside, I’m not aware of any source where a taxpayer can find out what percentage of federal financial aid (for higher ed) or their state public education budget (for K-12) is spent on textbooks, making it impossible to even begin asking these kinds of questions at any scale.) While faculty and departments aren’t subject to exactly the same accountability pressures as state procurement officers, how long can they continue choosing commercial textbook options over OER as this body of research grows?


Jose ends his post by saying “Publishers who can’t beat OER deserve to go out of business,” and he’s absolutely right. But in this context, “beat” means something very different for OER than it does for publishers. For OER, “beat” means being selected by faculty or departments as the only required textbook listed on the syllabus (I call this a “displacing adoption”). Without a displacing adoption – that is, if OER are adopted in addition to required publisher materials – students may experience an improvement in learning outcomes but will definitely not see a decrease in the price of going to college. Hence, OER “beat” publishers only in the case of a displacing adoption. For publishers, the bar is much lower – to “beat” OER, publishers simply need to remain on the syllabus under the “required” heading.

How are OER supposed to clear this higher bar, particularly given the head start publishers have? OER have only recently started to catch up with publishers in many of the areas where publishers have enjoyed historical advantages, like packaging and distribution (c.f. the amazing work being done by OpenStax, BCCampus OpenEd, Lumen Learning, and others). But OER have been beating publishers on price and learning outcomes for several years now, and proponents of OER would be wise to keep the conversation laser-focused on these two selection criteria. In a fortunate coincidence for us, I believe these are the two criteria that matter most.

OER offerings are always going to win on price – no publisher is ever going to offer their content, hosting platform, analytics, and faculty-facing services in the same zip code as $5 per student. (And when we see the emergence of completely adaptive offerings based on OER – which we will – even if they are more expensive than $5 per student they will still be significantly less expensive than publishers’ adaptive offerings.) Even if OER only manage to produce the same learning results as commercial textbooks (a “no significant difference” research result), they still win on price. “How would you feel about getting the same outcomes for 95% off?” All OER have to do is not produce worse learning results than commercial offerings.

So the best hope for publishers is in creating offerings that genuinely promote significantly better learning outcomes. (I can’t describe how happy I am to have typed that last sentence.) The best opportunity for publishers to soundly defeat OER is through offerings that result in learning outcomes so superior to OER that their increased price is justified. Would you switch from a $5 offering that resulted in a 65% passing rate to a $100 offering that resulted in a 67% passing rate? Would you switch to a $225 offering that resulted in a 70% passing rate? There is obviously some performance threshold at which a rational actor would choose to pay 20 or 40 times more, but it’s not immediately apparent to me where it is.

However, if OER can beat publishers on both price and learning outcomes, as we’re seeing them do, then OER deserve to be selected by faculty and departments over traditional commercial offerings in displacing adoptions.

I was the member of the panel Jose quoted as saying that ‘80% of all general education courses taught in the US will transition to OER in the next 5 years,’ and I honestly believe that’s true. The combined forces of the innovator’s dilemma, the emergence of new, Red Hat-like organizations supporting the ecosystem around OER, the learning outcomes per dollar metric, and the growing national frustration over the cost of higher education all seem to point clearly in this direction.


US Supreme Court Declines Review Of Controversial Copyright Ruling

This article was originally written by Steven Seidenberg and published on the site Intellectual Property Watch. IP Watch requires you to create an account to read their CC BY-NC-ND licensed articles. This annoyed me, so I am reposting the article here.

The US Supreme Court yesterday let stand an important appellate court ruling on copyright law, giving a boost to artists who repurpose others’ works and to supporters of fair use rights. This decision, however, upset many copyright owners, who fear it will allow their works to be used without payment and without their consent.

The Supreme Court didn’t decide the case on its merits. Instead, the court simply refused to review the Second Circuit Court of Appeal’s decision in Cariou v. Prince.