Open Access as Undergraduate Pedagogy | Backtalk

Open Access (OA) is usually associated with academic scholarship and its relationship to the “paywall” by proponents and critics alike. Librarians and faculty have long been using OA as a way to challenge for-profit publishing monopolies and the barriers they create to the transmission, distribution, and consumption of information. 

Open Access (OA) is usually associated with academic scholarship and its relationship to the “paywall” by proponents and critics alike. Librarians and faculty have long been using OA as a way to challenge for-profit publishing monopolies and the barriers they create to the transmission, distribution, and consumption of information. In response to this trend, recent critics of an expanding OA movement in higher education include the American Historical Association (AHA), which in the summer of 2013 championed a six-year embargo on history dissertations, believing this would protect junior colleagues’ intellectual property rights. Many librarians and scholars have pushed back, arguing that the organization’s action is too guild-centric.

In the wake of the AHA decision and sustained polarization among higher education faculty, it is essential to consider the question of OA not only in terms of its impact on publishers and scholars, but in terms of its teaching and learning potential for students and educators. Doctoral dissertations and master’s theses are frequently shared in open access repositories, but what effect might formally expanding OA to undergraduate work have on pedagogy and the learner experience? What are the implications for creating access to emerging undergraduate scholarship, particularly in a context in which considerations of professional-level publication are of less urgent import?

The authors of this article wrote undergraduate theses (Booth at Reed College, Miller at Pitzer College) that ended up locked in a library tower and a filing cabinet, respectively. But obscurity is not the final resting place for theses written for the Claremont Colleges five-campus major in Environmental Analysis (EA). Consider a recent Pitzer graduate, Mary Ferguson (’12), author of Sediment Removal from the San Gabriel Mountains. She enrolled in the required thesis class at Pomona College, which included librarian-led workshops focused on making full use of available information resources and the responsibilities of OA publication, such as vigorous source material attribution and obtaining permissions from content creators. Armed with new understanding, Mary then wrote her thesis with a worldwide audience in mind.

Since 2011, EA seniors with theses graded B and above have been required to submit their work to Scholarship @ Claremont (S@C), the Claremont Colleges Library’s OA repository. A growing number of institutions are adopting similar OA capstone requirements for undergraduates as well as graduate students. These raise the stakes of academic work, reinforce the meaning of information literacy and research accountability, and, as has been the case in the EA program, can actually reduce grade inflation by simultaneously raising and equalizing expectations. It creates transparency about what excellent work is supposed to look like on a peer to peer basis, both because we’re teaching specifically to an information literacy skillset that prepares theses for the OA repository and by simple virtue of the work being out there for all to view.

When open publication is integral to the teaching and learning process, it can show students what it means to participate in a community of practice and improve the quality and depth of their work. Moreover, the raised stakes of public readership can augment the urgency and impact of collaboration with librarians on issues of source use and robust argumentation. Writing for a wider audience also acts as a springboard for the cultivation of a student’s voice and expertise, expanding the meaning of an assignment far beyond securing a good grade. And the larger and more realistic the audience these students address, the more compelling the experience.

Mary made this case when she emailed us in May 2013, observing that “my thesis has been doing surprisingly well, at last count it had about 270 downloads and I was listed as one of the most popular authors in both the Forest Management Commons and Natural Resources Economics Commons.”Her project is not the most heavily downloaded by any means: for example, Kellyann Murphy’s (’11) Analysis of Biodiesel Quality Using Reversed Phase High-Performance Liquid Chromatography has had 1338 downloads, and Megan Turner’s (’11) Is LEED a True Leader? Studying the Effectiveness of LEED Certification in Encouraging Green Building has reached 839.

As impressive as this is, it must be acknowledged that in most cases it still remains unclear who is doing the downloading and for what purpose. What is clear is the impact these download counts have on students. Knowing that her work was being read led Mary to recognize its ongoing value: “I wish I had more time with it to add more content and polish it up a bit, but I’m thinking of writing some sort of follow up on the whole thing.” OA helped Mary perceive a scholarly conversation to which she could contribute, even as an undergraduate.

Uploading theses to S@C has also created opportunities most recent college graduates can only dream of. Since completing her Pitzer degree in 2012, Mary was invited to join the board of a Los Angeles environmental education non-profit that is using her thesis to “develop policy and recommendations for sediment management.” She was also asked to participate in a sediment-management roundtable facilitated by the Arroyo Seco Foundation, “after [it] found my thesis through an online search.” In an age of digital footprint preoccupation, showcasing excellent OA undergraduate work can help students build an online readership and develop hitherto unimagined academic and professional opportunities.

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) has been a powerful advocate for open scholarship, and its list of OA’s advantages is definitive and revelatory. Yet the way SPARC identifies the universe of idea generation and who should control it subtly reinforces the top-down dynamic it purports to disrupt. It privileges faculty domain over the production of knowledge, making academics and the professional organizations to which they belong the sole gatekeepers to legitimate ideas and research.

This grants faculty an uncritically accepted power that is revealed in the most common critiques of undergraduate (and graduate) OA publication. Some disciplines justifiably fear releasing research data before the faculty is ready to publish. Others express concern that a promising undergraduate thesis may be precluded from future formal publication, despite evidence to the contrary in more advanced realms of scholarly activity, or that student scholarship is too immature, not ready for primetime. Often unstated is the anxiety that if professors’ names are associated with a sub-par OA thesis, it may undercut their academic standing.

One counter to these worries is that undergraduate work is just that; it must be read with an understanding that it is emergent. Another is that OA work at the undergraduate level has important pedagogical implications. It challenges traditional hierarchical dynamics in academia and publishing and gives student authors space to assert their intellectual agency. OA has the potential to shift paradigms, as Mary Ferguson has recognized, a transformative contribution that empowers all scholars—not just those with ‘Ph.D’ appended to their names.


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