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Supporters of open-access journals and massive open online courses have been quick to label their initiatives disruptive, but a recent analysis by a York University professor suggests only one of them has the potential to spark considerable change, while the other is likely to remain an alternative alongside traditional offerings.

"Disruptive” has become one of higher education reformers’ favorite adjectives, jostling with “innovative” and “revolutionary” for the top spot. To mark Open Access Week, Richard Wellen, associate professor of business and society at York University in Canada, examines the degree to which open access alternatives in scholarship and research can change their respective areas within higher education.

In the analysis, published in the open-access journal SAGE Open, Wellen concentrates on two trends driven by advances in technology: the open-access movement in scholarly publishing and MOOCs. While the former is “seen as an extension of the state’s long-standing support for knowledge creation as a public good,” Wellen writes that MOOCs have been a more disruptive force because the debates surrounding them have “sharpened existing political battle lines."

“One one side, there are those who portray traditional higher education models as enjoying too much immunity from market forces and public demands for greater academic efficiency and productivity,” Wellen writes. “On the other side are faculty groups and others who are struggling against a narrative of disruption that sees higher education as a business while discounting the issues of academic quality, freedom and governance.”

The opposing camps have seen their ranks bolstered by competing visions about the future of higher education. Critics of online education have warned that MOOCs may create a new generation of “digital diploma mills,” pointing to statements such as Udacity founder Sebastian Thrun’s prediction that higher education in 50 years will consist of 10 degree-granting institutions. Supporters, meanwhile, have cheered MOOCs’ ability to streamline academic content into a format accessible to hundreds of thousands of students at the same time.

“In one sense, online courses simply allow higher education institutions to save money by outsourcing teaching work through the use of technologies that make teaching content portable,” Wellen writes. “More importantly, however, MOOCs are part of a larger socioeconomic shift that would diversity the supply chain of higher education, transferring more academic functions to independent services that are offered on a freelancing basis.”

In an e-mail, Wellen said he also believes the many "MOOC-like" entities that have popped up in the wake of their larger cousin may have a cumulative impact.

"I would say that other forms of online based innovation such as SMOCs and DOOCs place an emphasis on 'distributed' learning and therefore fall within the same pattern as MOOCs," Wellen wrote. "They all feature portability, unbundling and the potential for outsourcing."

As opposed to the sometimes provocative rhetoric used when discussing MOOCs, the scholarly publishing industry -- specifically its subscription business model -- “rests upon a highly valued partnership of publishers with the academic commons,” Wellen writes. Since most open access advocates are driven by a desire to find new avenues to disseminate research (as opposed to scrapping the existing models of scholarly communication), the movement has been less controversial -- and will perhaps be less disruptive -- than MOOCs.

The sense of partnership has recently expanded to include policymakers in the United Kingdom and the United States. “In this respect, policymakers appears to be interested in reforming the traditional publishing model without necessarily disrupting the academic commons which that model is meant to serve,” Wellen writes.

Wellen said he found the backlash against the open access mandate in Britain interesting, but added that his point about the near-unanimous support for the initiative referred the effort in general.

"The debate in the UK largely has concerned the apparent  primacy assigned to Gold OA, but my point was the larger one that OA itself has now achieved the status of a near-universal policy principle," Wellen wrote.

Wellen also examines the “green” and “gold” open-access models, and notes that critics have found faults with both. The green model (which makes articles available after they have been published in traditional journals) is “parasitical upon the subscription model rather than an alternative to it,” he writes, while the gold model (which makes article instantly available online) has drawn criticism for the fact that it “may introduce rationing of funds and controversial and non-collegial determinations about which scholarly contributions and disciplines would or should be eligible for support.”

The open-access movement could impact the costs and efficiency of publishing, however, which Wellen writes “cannot be separated” from the conversation about its ability to disrupt the industry. “Megajournals” could lower costs by accepting thousands of articles a year, while journals could outsource services like peer review to independent companies like Rubiq.

Still, Wellen writes “One must be careful not to exaggerate the importance of megajournals.... Nevertheless, crowdsourcing technologies are becoming important complements to conventional academic gatekeepers and there is every probability new post-publication filters and metrics will allow innovations like megajournals to ‘disrupt’ important sectors of the journal market.”

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