The MOOC(H) Parade

A friend of mine explained that the object of the MOOC revolution was to have the authority in a particular field of study create an online course for the masses. I told her determining the identity of a faculty expert might take well over a decade. She seemed nonplussed.

Another colleague explained with the advent of the MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) revolution he could become the global expert on late nineteenth-century Ohio literary publication history. I reminded him that MOOCs were intended for a very significant audience.

He didn’t talk to me for days.

I don’t think that MOOCs are the “Pet Rock” of today’s educational environment, but I’m convinced there is a lot of Massive Open Online Course Hysteria going around.  As a university press director I’m reminded of the effort by many publishers to put content on CDs when the technology was new. That effort lasted about a year and ended quite badly. Even e-books have had a long incubation process and haven’t made traditional books obsolete.

MOOCs can be helpful in many ways, but they are more of a public relations and marketing tool. Sure, I can take a course via a Stanford or MIT MOOC. I won’t be charged for doing so, but I won’t get credit either. Further, I’ll need to be super motivated because if I’m like the greater percentage of MOOC takers, I will drop out before completion.

MOOCs can be useful in many settings. Giving content away for free does create some business model problems. Perhaps, MOOCs will be licensed to particular colleges and universities. MOOC creators will then need to include advertising to pay for their costs.

A professor who has moved some courses online was gratified to know that his online students’ test grades were statistically similar to his traditional, face-to-face students. Online was pretty capable he said, except for the proposition of student collaboration. The online environment just didn’t work well for group projects.

MOOCs can be very useful for highly-structured students who can discipline themselves to finish what they start. MOOCs can even be good refreshers for many in the workforce. However, I don’t think society will advance if we have a generation of MOOCers.

My teenage son would never have to leave his room when he stays home to go to college.


Winning at Academics, Instead

I’m the director of a small university press at a mid-major university. Our basketball team, the Akron Zips, is doing well this year, but unless they win the MAC tournament, they might not get into the NCAA Basketball Tournament.  Some conferences will be strongly represented no matter how well a team might have fared in its own conference. But that’s big time college sports – driven by television and money and paying lip service to academics. A recent article in The New York Times about Duke Basketball probably said it best indicating the BMOC was Mike Krzyzewski and not the Duke President. (See

                The University of Akron provides support for its university press and for its athletic program. I am appreciative that the university funds the press. The amount allows us to publish 10-15 books annually on both academic topics and regional history.

                I don’t want to compare NCAA sports to university presses, but it’s hard not to do. The amount of money, no matter the sources, that is invested in athletics tells a lot about how we view our best and brightest students. Several NCAA FCS head coaches receive more than $3 million dollars annually and the programs at those schools spend over $30 million on football.  The university subsidy for our press  is less than 1% of that amount and we are not alone.

                Many policymakers complain about how the United States is falling behind the world in math and science. States across the country are cutting back funding to local school districts. College sports have a place in the academic experience but in most cases the number of participants in inter-collegiate athletics is a very small percentage of total enrollments. I and many other press directors are waiting for our sports departments to provide us or other parts of the university with support. Perhaps, it’s time to tax our teams so that we can attend more personally and effectively to all students. Tutoring and team training tables work great for athletes. I’m sure the concepts would be as effective for in-need undergraduates. 

Thomas Bacher, Director, University of Akron Press


AAUP Statement on GSU Amicus Brief

February 7, 2013 (New York, NY)—Today, AAUP filed an amicus curiae brief supporting the plaintiffs—Cambridge University Press, Oxford University Press, and SAGE Publications—in their appeal to the Eleventh Circuit of the district court decision in Cambridge University Press v. Becker. The full amicus curiae brief, a summary, and the plaintiffs’ brief are all posted here:

University presses and university libraries are part of the same system of higher education and scholarly communication. Both presses and libraries work in service to the same social good—the advancement of knowledge—and both face the same financial pressures caused by the recent economic depression and slow recovery. Moreover, an increasing number of university press directors report to deans of libraries, and press-library collaborations are expanding.

AAUP believes in fair use. We believe robust scholarship depends on the ability of scholars to quote others’ published works for criticism and commentary, and to make transformative uses of others’ work by adding new, copyrightable work of their own. Our members rely on this important copyright principle in deciding when to seek permission to include others’ work in their own publications, and when they can justify that inclusion as a fair use. And we believe in the important role fair use plays in education generally, including enabling teachers to make appropriate use of books and other works in and out of the classroom. The question of appropriate parameters for fair use as publishing and education transition to digital is a complex and important one. AAUP would welcome a decision in the GSU case that helped clarify our understanding of fair use on university networks.

Unfortunately, the district court’s decision does not do that. The court misunderstood both the fundamental purpose of fair use and misapplied the four statutory factors in its fair use analyses, as our brief argues.

A quick summary of the case. The GSU suit, as it is known, was filed in 2008 to contest GSU’s practice of posting copyrighted material on GSU’s electronic reserves systems without clearing permissions, violating the plaintiffs’ copyrights. Among GSU’s defenses was that their practice was permissible as an exercise of fair use, one of the exceptions to the exclusive rights of copyright owners.

The implications of GSU’s practices for AAUP’s members are broad. Testimony during trial established that during 2009 (the period on which the trial focused) GSU was clearing no permissions with any publisher for posting substantial excerpts from scholarly books on their e-reserves systems. And despite the new policy GSU put in place in response to this suit, even the district court agreed that GSU continued to infringe the publishers’ and their authors’ rights after the new policy was implemented. GSU’s e-reserves practices thus bear on the copyright rights of all the members of AAUP whose work was, or may in the future be, taken without permission by the university. That’s the first issue of concern for us.

Second, testimony at trial also showed that although the university failed to clear permissions for e-reserves, it was continuing to clear—and where necessary, pay for—permission to use equivalent material in the dwindling number of printed course-packs the university also made available to students. This practice of treating the copyrighted material differently depending on the format—print on paper versus electronic—and the fact that GSU, rather than a commercial copy shop acting on GSU’s behalf, did the actual copying, is not only illogical, but also violates the settled principle in copyright law of media neutrality: that copyright protection does not vary depending on the medium in which a work is presented.

Third, we believe the court’s interpretation of fair use is irredeemably flawed. The fair use provision—Section 107 of the Copyright Act—requires that in deciding whether a given instance of copyright infringement can be excused as fair, four factors must be analyzed and their relative merits weighed: the purpose of the use, the nature of the copyrighted work, the amount and substantiality of the portion used, and the effect of the use on the potential market for or value of the copyrighted work.

This is not the place to reprise all our brief’s arguments about the errors of law in the court’s analysis of the four factors, but there are two that we think could have particularly significant, damaging, long-term consequences for scholarly communication. The first is the court’s blanket conclusion that because scholarly works are “informational” rather than “fictional,” the second factor in a fair use analysis—the nature of the work—should automatically favor those who want to make verbatim reproductions of them without paying permissions fees semester after semester. Essentially, this means that in the judge’s view the non-fiction works published by the members of AAUP—in a word, almost everything they publish—enjoy no more copyright protection than a directory. As the brief points out, the case law shows that this reductive categorization is simplistic and misleading. It is also, in our view, a remarkable devaluation of the creative energy and skilled judgment of scholarly authors, and of the value of the scholarship they labor to produce.

The second flaw worth noting for its potential long-term consequences is the court’s analysis of the fourth factor and its judgment that in all but a handful of instances the market harm caused by GSU’s failure to pay permissions was so negligible as to pose no threat to the publishers’ interests. Yet the fourth factor asks the court to consider harm to both existing and potential markets; in other words, to evaluate the harm if the contested practice were to become widespread. Even accepting the court’s niggling analysis of the market harm caused by GSU’s e-reserves practices, it’s obvious that widespread adoption of those practices by other universities would very substantially increase the harm.

The members of AAUP are all nonprofits. Reducing their revenue doesn’t diminish profits paid out to private shareholders, because there aren’t any. Instead it reduces publishing capacity, a reduction that falls heaviest on the high-quality, specialized works of scholarship selected for inclusion in e-reserves systems in the first place because of their high value in teaching and advancing knowledge.

AAUP members, both individually and as a community, have invested significantly in non-profit online aggregation services that will make tens of thousands of our books viewable and readable to researchers connected to university libraries all over the world. They have also labored, throughout their history, to keep prices low—for many scholarly books, even below cost-recovery rates.

The financial problems of university libraries are severe, but they haven’t been caused by the members of AAUP. Seeking to reduce even further a legitimate source of secondary revenue for university presses may appear to be good for libraries in the short term, but it denigrates the work of faculty scholars and penalizes university presses for doing what they do best: publishing the very work that is most valuable in teaching and research. The long-term consequences can’t be good for any of us: presses, scholars, authors, or libraries. Surely if we put our heads together we can do better than that.

Indiana University’s E-text Program

The Indiana University e-text program has gotten a lot of attention recently. The program, implemented by CIO, Brad Wheeler uses the institutional experience from volume software buying to change the pricing terms for e-texts in a sustainable win-win way for students, faculty and publishers.  Of course, that’s what the current spin is. Basically, telling a publisher that students will be compelled to buy a digital product (actually only rent a text as long as they are at IU) and perhaps a printed copy at a reduced price , is something accountants at Pearson, McGraw Hill, Prentice Hall and others must be overjoyed about. The more the program catches on, the better – for commercial publishers.

Wheeler might be CIO of the Year, but in a few years students will be paying a higher price.  IU’s program is a subscription system that publishers adore – fixed revenue at fixed intervals. Further, the student never owns anything in the end.  How is this beneficial? True, students will get access to materials at a reduced rate helping the learning process, but in many ways this could be accomplished in the current used book market, which Wheeler has basically eliminated. Publishers’ revenues were severely impacted by used books.

The bottom line is that publishers’ bottom lines will be enhanced. I’m not a future teller but if subscription-based products are any indication, textbook prices will go up annually, probably at a rate higher than inflation. Another bargain for students.

The Wheeler model might be all the rage but in some ways it’s outrageous. Students pay and don’t get anything permanently. If students want to port their text around, they might even have to purchase a digital reader, which should be added to the price.  I’m sure a secondary market will open up – students who wish to keep their access after leaving IU will only have to pay a rental fee, perhaps forever.

Wheeler has strengthened the commercial publishers’ hold on the textbook market. Sometimes you can take models from one industry and apply them to others. I’m just not convinced that bulk software buying and bulk textbook buying are similar. Bits of words don’t make bytes, and as any good CIO would tell you, once you’ve invested in a computing platform, the price to change is extremely high, if you are able to change at all.

The Association of American University Presses and the Closing of the University of Missouri Press

Recently I attended the 2012 Annual Meeting of the Association of American University Presses in Chicago, Illinois. The theme was “Igniting the Future” and the organization is celebrating its 75th anniversary. The theme seemed rather ironic or dark considering the history of Chicago and fire, even though the MSL soccer team is called “The Fire.”

At the same time, the Chicago Cultural Center was holding an exhibit entitled “Morbid Curiosity.” According to the exhibit’s brochure, “the desire to investigate the theme of death is considered unusual and potentially unhealthy or abnormal.” As a director of a university press, after years of hearing about extinction, especially of monographs, subject areas, and almost anything that resembled a book, the art exhibit provided a nice juxtaposition. Even though the viewing space was filled with skulls and skeletons, the artists were using death as a way to emphasize the importance of life.  I hoped to transfer the exhibit’s perspective to the university press setting—the death of one form of communication meant that other forms were emerging in need of the skill and expertise of university press staff members.

The upbeat mood at the conference was restrained, however, by the news that the University of Missouri press was going to be closed. Even before the announcement, perhaps with prescient foresight, the AAUP had scheduled a director’s meeting to hammer out a path for future vitality and visibility. Among the issues that were discussed was a statement that a Missouri administrator had made—”When you look at what we have invested in the press over the past 15 years,” [vice president for finance and administration Nikki] Krawitz said, “and maybe before that, we’ve invested a lot in the press, and relatively few of our faculty publish in the press, so the subsidy to outside authors is huge.” This statement highlights the problematic way in which university presses are perceived.

First of all, most universities do not have university presses. So, presses like the UM press, subsidize books for other universities without compensation. Among the colleges and universities represented in UM’s 2012 fall catalog are Miami University of Ohio, the University of Arkansas (Fort Smith), Andrew College, Washington University (St. Louis), Southeast Missouri State, and DeAnza College. Similar results would be found by browsing the catalogs of other university presses. Of course, the University of Missouri’s faculty benefits from being published at other university presses, too. A look at the vitas of UM’s English Department shows that at a minimum 56 monographs produced by department faculty where published at other university presses, including Cornell, Stanford, Georgia, and Ohio State, to name a few.

Secondly, being published by your home university press tends to be a sign of an author’s weakness. It’s like using the football coach to referee a home game. Everyone would understand the fix was in. The faculty of the UM English Department did publish at least seven books with their home press.

The hint that the UM press should be profitable was tacitly implied by several administrators’ comments. University presses are not profit centers. Of course, the majority of university sports programs, and in many cases, several university departments run deficits. University presses are just easier targets.

The scholarly ecology needs university presses because they are a deterrent against predatory, commercial publishers.  The small investments by those universities that have presses enable younger faculty to get published. Perhaps, some forward thinking chancellor at a state board of regents will realize the value of sustaining scholarship and ask for a small levy from all schools in that state that do not have university presses. In this way, libraries would get free copies of every book published by their in-state university presses and open-access publications would flourish.

The old Fram tagline is right on target–either pay me now or pay me later. Closing a university press just escalates the costs across all of academia. Unfortunately, university administrators don’t always read the fine print.