by Dr Clare McCluskey Dean, Academic Liaison Librarian

A recent revalidation of a course suite, in a subject area for which I am the library liaison, brought to a head the problems in providing online access to programme resources. This is both in terms of access during lockdown, preventing unnecessary handling of print sources and the associated health risks with that for library workers and users, and also because these courses involve placements or distance learning where the students will not have easy access to campus anyway.

There were three key areas that needed addressing.

  1. The lack of availability of ebooks from traditional academic publishers, due to them either not being offered at all, only being offered on restrictive, unfair models, or because of prohibitively high costs.
  2. The inaccessibility of ebooks supplied to libraries, with DRM often stopping users relying on screen-readers decent access to texts. This is particularly with the use of third-party software stopping the download of books, or sections of books, to the formats needed.
  3. The lack of representation of sections of society, and inherent marginalisation, in the content of many traditionally-published texts, and the wish to find alternative sources to try and counteract this.

The academics involved in the revalidation asked me to participate at the stage where all of the modules to be designed had been outlined, but the content of them was still to be decided. I had the aims and outcomes to work with, and some suggested readings that could help as a starting point, and the remit to build up potential resource lists for each module which helped address these three core issues.

I decided that open access sources provided one way of addressing all three of them, to some extent. By their nature, they are designed to be accessible without payment. They are usually readable online, or downloadable to PDF, and testing of a sample showed that they were screen-reader compatible. In addition, I could check the contents more easily to identify works from a number of different viewpoints, and particularly found works from writers in countries which were not represented in the texts we had in stock, purchased in the traditional way by academic publishers. This is one step in trying to address representation, acknowledging that this should not stop here or be a token gesture.

We started by looking for open access books, with a view to having core lists in place for each module. From here, once module leaders have been appointed for the actual teaching, I can work with them on locating a wider range of sources. I used Oapen, DOAB and LibreTexts as my main search tools.

I took the approach of putting all of the modules into a stand-alone reading list. For each module, I took the indicative titles from traditional publishers supplied by the academics, and gave notes as to their current availability (or otherwise) in ebook format, and potential costs in their further use. After this, I introduced other texts from existing traditional publishers that may be useful, again with notes as to availability and trying to surface the ones which provide DRM-free access. Finally, I also ensured that open access resources were added where ones appropriate to the content of the module could be located.

Generally I found there to be a good range of titles available in open access format, and this is only going to develop as more academic authors find their work restricted by traditional publishing set-ups. They are much easier for students to use, with no passwords needed for future access if they bookmark them, full download is available so they can save them wherever they like, and they work with assistive technology in the format available to all.

I plan to make more posts about this, with more specific examples of where open access texts have been used in module design and/or delivery in order to enhance learning. It’s my hope that we can find alternative ways of providing access to information when the cost of obtaining or providing access to resources has proven to be too high in either monetary or accessibility terms, and find a sustainable way forward.

Note : A longer version of this post is available, with links to references and further reading.

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