The Commercial Crossover: A look at the people and projects reclaiming and releasing knowledge into the open

We live in a time of information overload, where news, opinions, and facts consume us. Despite this information-rich age, many students are deprived of the knowledge they need to learn by the cost and time limitation imposed by course access codes.

Fortunately, several presses and collections are dusting off out-of-print books and offering them up as open works. Some publishers and authors are taking this a step further by resurrecting old commercial textbooks and reissuing them with an open-copyright licence.

Post by Lauri Aesoph, manager, open education

In addition to teaching, more and more instructors are choosing to share their expertise by writing or revising an open textbook. What makes this type of book unique is the open-copyright licence used, which allows the author to give advanced permission to anyone, anywhere to use, copy, print, distribute, or change the book, depending on the specific licence.

Open licences, however, are not limited to new or adapted works. There are people and projects out there rummaging through their copyright cupboards to find under-utilized and forgotten books that still have value in order to share them openly.

Out-of-Print but Still-of-Value

During the past few years, several academic presses and collections have pulled out-of-print books from storage and reposted them with a Creative Commons or other open-copyright licence. (It’s important to note that many out-of-print books are still copyrighted works.)

For example, Cornell University Press (CUP) in Ithaca, New York, has been doing just that with its humanities and social science textbooks since 2016 with funding from the National Endowment (NEH) for the Humanities and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation (see Mellon grant supports open access to humanities texts). Earlier this year, with the pandemic well underway, Cornell received an NEH CARES Act Grant to complete its Open Access in a Closed World project with contributions to the Cornell Open repository. 

In Canada, the University of Alberta Press decided to make “significant titles Open Access rather than letting them go out of print, keeping them available to researchers and the general public.” Elsewhere, the John Hopkins University Press in the U.S., the American School of Classical Studies at Athens in Greece, and El Colegio de México are all doing the same thing.

Update … then Open

For some authors and publishers, it’s not enough to pry open copyright and share existing content. For some, it’s crucial that the commercial textbook in question be revised before releasing it with an open licence. They consider these improvements give both students and instructors the best version possible of a once valuable — but now outdated — book.

BCcampus followed this trend with the recent release of Human Security in World Affairs: Problems and Opportunities – 2nd Edition. Dr. Alex Lautensach, associate professor at UNBC, and Dr. Sabina Lautensach, founding editor-in-chief of the Journal of Human Security, served as editors for the first commercial edition of this human security textbook published by Caesarpress in 2013. After verifying that copyright was held by the 22 contributing authors and not the publisher, the couple approached BCcampus in 2017 about their desire to update and reissue the book as an open textbook. Read more about this project in the article “The Tie Between Open Education and Social Justice Strengthens.”

When copyrighted assets are part of a deceased author’s estate, the heirs may decide to extend the life and reach of a textbook with a Creative Commons open licence. Canadian students have been the lucky recipients of at least two such books: one on the east coast, and a second out west.

Keeping Knowledge Alive in B.C.

Back in 2016, the University of Victoria took on the task of updating a course manual by Dr. Peter Smith that was first created in the late 1980s. In fact, it had been so long since the manual was last in print that UVic’s Chair, Brendan Burke of Greek and Roman Studies needed to ask the author’s family for permission to revise and republish the original as an open textbook, as Dr. Smith had passed away a decade earlier. Fortunately, the family readily agreed, recognizing that the new open publication of Smith’s work aligned with the author’s original efforts to enrich the education of B.C. students. Dr. Smith’s book had, in fact, been a reaction to the cost of the textbook that was used at the time, with a cost factor that was increasing every year.

Dr. Peter Smith was born and raised in Victoria, had attended Victoria College–the predecessor to UVic–and later earned a PhD at Yale. He eventually returned to Victoria where he was among “the first faculty members of the university when UVic opened its doors in 1963 (and was) … the founding chair of the Classics Department (later named Greek and Roman Studies) from 1963-69. ” Dr. Smith loved the institution where he spent the bulk of his career, which is attested to in the preface to his book, A Multitude of the Wise: UVic Remembered. He wrote: “My affection for Victoria College and UVic is an emotion that I can’t pretend to conceal.”

With the family’s hearty support and assistance from the university’s Greek and Roman Studies department, the library staff and ePublishing Services at UVic applied their skills not only for the benefit of students of Greek and Roman studies, but also for those in health care and law programs, where understanding Latin helps decipher medical and legal terms. The final result was a set of two open textbooks: Greek and Latin Roots: Part I – Latin and Greek and Latin Roots: Part II – Greek.

Inba Kehoe, project lead for this endeavour and UVic’s copyright officer and scholarly communication librarian, says, “Part of our motivation to pursue this project was to honour Dr. Smith’s legacy as a valued educator at the university by ensuring that his teaching materials would be carried forward and hopefully used by other educators. The value of releasing the work with a CC BY licence is that it allows other scholars to benefit from and build on Dr. Smith’s work. One of our own team members had taken this course as part of her undergraduate degree and remembered what a valuable and memorable experience it was, which made it all the more meaningful to take this project full-circle.”

Maritime Minds Think Alike

Around the same time that Latin and Greek were joining the OER ranks, Geoff Brown, digital scholarship librarian at Dalhousie University Libraries in Halifax, began thinking about publishing an open textbook.

Ann Barrett, associate dean of scholarly communications and head of Dalhousie’s W. K. Kellogg Health Sciences Library, says that, as the university’s and its libraries’ first steps into the OER world, they opted to pursue a similar course to UVic’s salute to Peter Smith. Dalhousie decided “to profile and celebrate the great work of a long time Dalhousie faculty member, Bill Freedman, who wrote the first Canadian text on environmental science, updating it in five editions.”

Environmental Science: A Canadian Perspective was a fairly unique and inspiring open textbook project to work on, says Geoff Brown. Dr. Freedman passed away in 2015 just after finishing the sixth edition, which was scheduled to be published by a commercial publisher. (Elizabeth May, then leader of the Green Party of Canada, tweeted that his death was “a terrible loss.”) However, after Dr. Freedman’s death, the publisher decided not to follow through.

“The author’s widow feared that no one would benefit from all the hard work that her spouse had put into the last edition,” relates Brown, “so she approached the publisher and asked them to transfer copyright for the work to Dr. Freedman’s estate, to which the publisher agreed, along with providing all available files. This was a critical step towards ensuring a future for the work.”

Although Dr. Freedman’s widow, George-Anne Merrill, had no prior knowledge of OER or plans to republish her husband’s book, she did recognize the importance of acquiring copyright in case an opportunity arose. When Merrill eventually donated her spouse’s scholarly materials, including the Environmental Science textbook files, to the Dalhousie University Archives, university archivist Michael Moosberger explained to her that the sixth edition of Environmental Science: A Canadian Perspective need not be merely relegated to the archives, but could also be transformed into an open textbook.

“She immediately embraced the idea,” says Brown. “She felt an open textbook that could be made openly and freely available to anyone with a need to learn would be very much in line with Dr. Freedman’s wishes.”

Since its publication in late 2018, there have been over 1,000 downloads of various versions of the text from Dalhousie’s institutional repository, DalSpace, as well as a similar amount from the B.C. Open Textbook Collection.

Notable Quotes

From the foreword of Greek and Latin Roots: Part I, regarding Peter Smith:

“Peter had an exacting but jovial manner that students and colleagues can never forget. His demand for excellence impressed anyone who had the pleasure of knowing him.”

From Bill Freedman: an appreciation:

“Bill believed strongly that people are capable of rational action in relation to environmental issues if given ‘the facts’ and given some options. He was also Canadian to the core. That’s what drove him to write Environmental Science: A Canadian Perspective.”

For those interested in reissuing an existing textbook with an open-copyright licence that involves collaborating authors and other contributors, see Contracts and Agreements in the Self-Publishing Guide. For authors and projects interested in revising an existing textbook, see the Adaptation Guide.