OpenCon 2014 Reports from Virginia Tech Grad Students

As part of Open Access Week, the University Libraries and the Graduate School offered two travel scholarships to OpenCon 2014, a conference for early career researchers on open access, open data, and open educational resources. From a pool of many strong essay applications, we chose Jessie Gunter, a master’s student in public health, and Mohammed Seyam, a Ph.D. student in computer science. Jessie and Mohammed attended the conference in Washington, D.C. November 15-17, and sent the reports below. Be sure to check out the OpenCon 2014 presentation videos and slides.

Jessie and Mohammed
Jessie and Mohammed at Senator Tim Kaine’s office

Jessie Gunter writes:

OpenCon 2014 surpassed all expectations I could have had for a conference about Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data. The enthusiasm from all of the conference attendees was contagious and empowering, and I gained a much more nuanced understanding of all things “Open” thanks to a variety of incredible speakers, panels, workshops, and coffee break conversations. A part of the conference that I found particularly useful as an early career researcher and student was a workshop with Erin McKiernan called “How to make your research open.” The major takeaways from this, for me, were:

  • Check out peer-reviewed Open Access journals and publishers. PeerJ, PLOS, and eLife are examples of innovative OA publishing models with strong peer review. Also check DOAJ, the Thomson Reuters Open Access Journal List, and the Cofactor Journal Selector Tool to find journals that you might want to publish in.
  • If you don’t or can’t publish Open Access, check Sherpa/Romeo to see each publisher’s copyright policies on pre-prints, post-prints, and self-archiving. If the journal in which you are publishing allows pre-prints, for example, get your work out there to advance knowledge!
  • Consider using GitHub for code and data archiving and collaborative research tools such as writeLaTeX, shareLaTeX, or Authorea for writing, figshare for all kinds of self-archiving.
  • Explore your licensing options at (*Be mindful that choosing an option that prevents commercial entities from reusing your work would prevent your research from being used in university courses, Wikipedia…).
  • Consider using WordPress or another blogging platform to explain your work to non-experts.
  • Track your impact! with Altmetric and showcase your work and citations.

OpenCon 2014

Mohammed Seyam writes:

Day 0
On my way to Washington DC to attend OpenCon 2014 I was ready to attend a “regular” conference, where speakers have pre-planned speeches and where audience keep wishing for 1-2 exciting speeches per day! Now, after the 3-day conference is over, I can say that OpenCon 2014 was the conference that every single session of its rich program was a real value added besides being exciting enough to keep us all fully engaged with every speaker. Moreover, the conference wasn’t only about speakers and sessions, it was also about people getting to know each other and learning from the diverse international experiences of the participants. This fine mix of sessions and social activities resulted in one of the most remarkable events I ever attended.

The “different” atmosphere began with the welcome social on the day we arrived at the hotel. The organizers decided to gather participants in an open space to get introduced to each other and provide some sort of background before delving into the actual program events. On that 2-hour social, I got to know people from at least 8 different countries, as well as students from several universities in the USA. For me, that was an indicator that a very special event was to come.

Day 1
The first day of the conference – which was held at the Washington College of Law at American University – started with Michael Carroll, who gave a brief introduction to the conference. However, one of his quotes got me into the conference mood, which was: “You can’t just think open access is a good idea – you have to believe it.” From that talk on, the belief in open access began to grow stronger in all the conference participants. After Carroll, it was Patrick Brown‘s turn to talk on founding PLOS (Public Library of Science), and how to raise awareness and increase public interest in open access issues. Petitions, advocacy sessions, and direct talks are all ways to support open access, even if with no or minor instant outcomes. His most inspirational quote on that topic was: “If you don’t believe you’ll succeed, nobody else will!”

After Brown’s keynote, there was a panel on “The state of Open” where speakers presented the current state of open data, open education, and open access in and out of the USA. The first speaker was Heather Joseph, the Executive Director of SPARC (Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition). She talked about SPARC’s goal: Set the default to open. She also presented the state of open in the USA. During her talk, Joseph stressed that open access doesn’t mean only to be able to access the material, but also to be able to fully reuse it. In the USA, there are 50 institutions that have financial support for those who want to publish in open access journals (Virginia Tech is one of them!). As for the legal issues, Joseph showed that California became the first state to mandate open access to taxpayer funded research.

Iryna Kuchma then presented the state of open with an international view. Kuchma is the open access programme manager at EIFL (Electronic Information For Libraries). Besides the many numbers she showed and the different approaches she followed in advising for open access, it was important to announce that open access is now required by law in Mexico, Argentina, and Peru.

Ross Mounce then had an interesting presentation on the state of open data in research. Since Mounce is a postdoctoral researcher, he had deep insights regarding the open data issues. He simply believes that if a researcher doesn’t share his data, his research can’t be trusted (or believed!). The large size of data shouldn’t be a barrier, as some MRI scans with a total of 39 Gigabytes were just shared openly online. Mounce is against PDF and other closed source formats, and he advises to go with open formats such as csv.

The interesting panel ended with Nicole Allen, the Director of Open Education at SPARC. Allen’s main point involved open textbooks, and that was so important as the costs of textbooks are rising at almost three times the rate of inflation! Simply put, students can’t learn from materials they can’t afford. Therefore, with the explosion of openly licensed content during the last few years, it’s clear that open textbooks will be the next big step towards open education.

The second keynote speaker of the day was Victoria Stodden, the associate professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Her talk was about the importance of reproducibility of research, as well as the current trials of several USA organizations to create methods to organize the copyright issues related to open access. She sees that reproducibility and open access are sister issues. She then demonstrated Mertonian norms, which are communalism, universalism, disinterestedness, originality, and scepticism. These norms were also discussed by Brian Nosek in his open access week keynote at Virginia Tech. Stodden showed that skepticism requires transparency in the communication of the research process. She also talked about the importance of having senior researchers helping to move forward on the open access road, as the young researchers may not be able to do it all on their own. Stodden finally shared some facts regarding the steps that the Obama administration had taken to support open access in some government organizations.

After lunch, Uvania Naidoo from the University of Cape Town (South Africa) led a workshop on open access on the context of developing countries. It was important to highlight the case of open access in countries that already have problems with “access” itself. In my sub-group, we heard from a Mexican lawyer about his story on making open access mandatory for publicly-funded research in Mexico. Since many of the conference attendees were not from the USA, this session was full of personal stories on how the world sees open access, and it was full of different experiences that add a lot to the overall conference theme.

The second panel of the day was about “innovative publishing models”, and it was moderated by Meredith Niles, a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University. The first speaker was Arianna Becerril from Redalyc, who talked about her organization that provides an open access from Latin America, which is non-commercial and regional platform. For her, science that’s not seen, doesn’t exist! After Becerril, Peter Binfield, the cofounder of PeerJ presented his thoughts on open publishing, emphasizing the PeerJ history and future. He discussed the debate on open peer review, and provided some arguments that encourage reviewers and researchers to consider open peer review to be the default reviewing system. He also demonstrated some alternatives to the impact factor system, and presented the PeerJ reputation system that provides incentives for researchers to openly share more of their work. Then Martin Paul Eve from University of Lincoln in the UK and the cofounder of the Open Library of Humanities presented what he believes to be the three main problems of open access, which are: researcher access, public access, and reusability. Since most of work in humanities is not funded, the article processing charges are unaffordable for humanities researchers. That was the reason that led Eve and cofounders to work on the Open Library of Humanities to overcome such problem. Finally on that panel, Mark Patterson, the Executive Director of eLife, presented his view on how funders can take action to support open access. He also shared his thoughts on the traditional way of research assessment based on impact factors, seeing that as the real barrier to overcome, and providing some alternate initiatives led by eLife publishing system.

The last panel of the day was on “Impact of Open”, moderated by Erin McKiernan, a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University. The first speaker on this panel was Daniel DeMarte, the VP for Academic Affairs at Tidewater Community College. He presented his college’s impressive experience of adopting Open Educational Resources (OERs), which led to saving its students around $250,000 a year! The question that came to the minds of almost all the attendees was: how many millions could be saved if OER were used in many institutions?!

The second speaker was Jack Andraka, the winner of Intel’s 2012 International Science and Engineering Fair for his pancreatic cancer research and testing tool. He told the story of his breakthrough cancer diagnostic which I already knew, but it was new for me to know the importance of one open paper published on PLOS for his research. Therefore, Andraka was a very good example on how open research can affect human lives, and the cancer diagnostic test is a clear proof of this.

Peter Murray-Rust from the University of Cambridge then presented an expert view of how open is important for life. He hopes for a revolution in the world of publishing, as he believes that closed access means people die. He also sees that some laws can be broadly interpreted to help save more lives. Murray’s talk was a real inspiration for many of the attendees, and I believe he affected the minds of how youth should deal with the open access current and future state.

The last keynote of the day was by John Wilbanks, who discussed his view on “Open as a platform”. He emphasized the role of reusable data over open data, and that’s when he asked a simple question: “which is more valuable: Google or Google Scholar?” He also believe that a winning strategy for designing for open access would be “let’s create more value for the user”, not the “let’s build an open ecosystem” one. He concluded his talk with the legal issues, and the steps that should be taken to push policy makers to consider the open access bills and mandates to better serve people and communities.
This wonderful first day of OpenCon 2014 ended with a nice reception at Old Ebbitt Grill in downtown Washington DC, were we get to know more about those who we didn’t have the chance to talk with during the day. During that evening reception, most of the conversations were views, feedback, ideas, and questions about the day’s sessions. I think that social was more of a bonus session for the day, rather than a final break!

Day 2
Based on the great first day, the expectations of the second day were very high, and the excitement was clear on the faces of attendees during the breakfast. Frankly, the second day didn’t disappoint us, and it was as rich as the first day, thanks so the excellent organizing team.

The first key note was for Audrey Watters of Hack Education, who were concerned about moving from “open” to “justice”. She began the talk with a definition of “Openwashing”, which she defines as: having an appearance of open-source and open-licensing for marketing purposes, while continuing proprietary practices. Then she continued presenting her ideas on how data is not neutral and that injustices can be embedded within data. She believes that it’s not enough to have open access, because political engagement and social justice are still needed to get the full benefits of being open.

The second keynote was by Erin McKiernan, a postdoctoral fellow at Wilfrid Laurier University. As an early career researcher, she provided how young researchers can support and work for open access while maintaining their jobs and future. She provided some tips for researchers on how to avoid the dilemma of “worshipping” the impact factor, as she believes that impact factors have nothing to do with academic quality. She showed her open pledge, concluding it with a quote to remember: “If I’m going to make it in science, it has to be on terms I can live with”. McKiernan also provided some tips to use when a young researcher introduces open access to his/her advisor, examples are: be concise, include data, explain the benefits, list the different options and talk to the advisor early.

The R2RC (Right to Research Coalition) then honoured Melissa Hagemann of the Open Society Foundation for being a foundation of the open access movement on the first awards given by R2RC. I believe this is a good first step towards recognizing those who provided much of their time and effort to advocate for open access for human wellbeing.

Following the awards ceremony was a panel were students and early career researchers have presented their success stories in working for open access. Stories from USA, Kenya, Nepal, Nigeria, and Australia have been presented and showed how great students can achieve because of their enthusiasm and belief in the open access idea. It was also noticeable that open access worked well even in developing countries that lack “access” in many cases. However, it’s all about how people work together and not accepting “No” as an answer until they achieve their goals.

The third keynote of the day was by Phil Bourne, the first Associate Director for Data Science at the NIH (National Institutes of Health). Bourne was concerned about how crazy and broken the system is, and how open access is important to human health. He showed the top-down and bottom-up approaches that can be used to facilitate data sharing. He, as more than one of the previous speakers, thinks that money is important but it won’t solve all the problems when it comes to being open. He emphasised the roles of government as well as promotion and hiring committees in encouraging researchers to openly share their data and research.

After lunch, there was a workshop by Erin McKiernan and Ross Mounce on how to make a research open. They provided a roadmap and several tools that can help any researcher to go open with his research. The main steps they presented were: find a journal that allows preprints (like arXiv, figshare and PeerJ), choose a journal to publish in (using DOAJ for example), explore licensing options (on Creative Commons), self-archive the research (on PeerJ, figshare, university repository, or a personal website!), and write blogs to explain the research (on WordPress for example). Many tools and links were given on this workshop that I believe was of a great value for many of the attendees.

Peter Binfield had a second appearance but as a keynote speaker this time; where he talked about megajournals. He showed how important to fight for “impact neutral” journals. He also thinks that the rejected papers, rejection letters, and paper reviews are all valuable to be shared publicly online. Coming from the PeerJ, Binfield had some deep insights on how the publishing system works, and how it can benefit from open access movement.

Two panels were then held back-to-back where some of the participants presented their projects that support open access. Again, it was amazing and very inspirational to see how researchers and students can achieve based mainly on their own beliefs.

The final keynote for the day was given by Carolina Botero, who was supposed to talk about open access in Latin America. However, her talk covered many aspects related to open access in general, especially the legal issues and how to deal with governments to create laws that mandate open access. She also talked about the Colombian grad student who faces jail time for sharing a thesis online. She concluded her talk by emphasizing the role of young researchers and activists in raising public awareness on the importance of open access and how it affects people lives.

That day was concluded by an “unconference” session, where informal meetings were held at the hotel so that subgroups can discuss whatever topics they feel interested in. One of active tables was the one that discussed “Open access in humanities”, where the participants showed their concerns about sharing preprints because in the humanities it’s like sharing their own thinking process. They also discussed the review process and how open reviews would help their research field.

Day 3
The third – and last – day began early at the Hart Senate Office Building, where we were assigned to certain groups for specific tasks. That day was called the “Advocacy day”; as we were supposed to meet with legislators to let them know more about open access and encourage them to move forward on the process of mandating openness. We had a short – yet entertaining – talk that was full of information by Amy Rosenbaum (Deputy Assistant to the President of the United States for Legislative Affairs). She talked about her past relationship with SPARC, and then she gave some quick tips on how to deal with legislators for such advocacy meetings. We also had some tips from the organizers that helped us on our advocacy meeting. Our group was supposed to meet with Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA) at the Russell Senate Office Building, but since he wasn’t available we met with his legislative aide. With three of our group coming from universities in Virginia (Virginia Tech and the University of Virginia), Senator Kaine was quite familiar for us and his interest in education topics encouraged us to discuss the open education policies with his legislative aide. It was a very productive meeting as everyone in the group presented personal experience with the topic, and the aide was eager to know more, promising that she’ll move all our thoughts to Senator Kaine when he’s back in the office. One of her interesting questions was about if there were any state that had some bills related to that issue, and our answer was California. So she asked us to provide her with some details and we promised to send her such details on her email.

After lunch, we moved to the US Department of State, where we met with members working on the Open Government Partnership. All of us were international students, so the members began to talk about their efforts in working with several countries on open access issues, and they wanted to listen to our experiences and how they can work with our governments to support open access. They showed that Obama’s administration is determined to work on open access issues as part of its mission, but things move so slowly when it comes to legislation. However, they have achieved success related to the Open Government Initiative, and they were optimistic about the future of open access in the USA and some other countries that they are working with.

That great day ended with a dinner at the University Club, where it was clear how “unique” that conference was. Although it was the same friendly atmosphere of the very first social, one could easily see that many real friendships have been created during the 3-day period. Some very inspiring talks were given by the organizers, followed by quality time for participants sharing their final small talks with each other. Some of the next steps were introduced based on the momentum of the event, and many online communication mediums were put to use.

Final Thoughts
On many of the breaks and subgroup talks, I’ve always been proud to talk about Virginia Tech’s initiatives to encourage open access. VT libraries open repository, VTechWorks, was always appreciated by the audience, as well as the VT initiative to fund researchers who want to publish in open journals. Open textbooks were introduced to me just a few weeks before attending OpenCon 2014, and I was proud to demonstrate how VT is already taking steps towards open textbooks while they were presenting that topic during the conference. Moreover, VT activities during Open Access Week helped me to easily get involved in some topics that needed deep understanding, and that was a very good example of how universities can advocate for open access through such activities and sessions. Since many other universities in the USA didn’t have any policies or even ideas for open access, I was glad that VT (and VT libraries) considered working on open access early, which shows the vision that our administration has. This vision, I believe, was the reason that made VT libraries decide – together with VT Graduate School – to support two students to attend this conference. I was glad when I got accepted for such scholarship, and I was excited to participate, but now I’m inspired and enthusiastic to work with VT libraries to find ways to advocate and encourage VT staff members and researchers to openly publish their work. I’m also very interested to work on the legislative level, especially in Virginia, to draw the legislators’ attention to the importance of open data and open education for the community as a whole, not only for university and researchers. I believe that the experience I got from OpenCon 2014, together with the connections I’ve made with other open access activists, will help me a lot to work on this during the rest of my time at VT.

OpenCon 2014
OpenCon 2014 by Aloysius Wilfred Raj, CC-BY 2.0
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The Research Data Assessment Survey at Virginia Tech

An e-mail about the current university-wide research data survey was recently sent to most faculty members at Virginia Tech (specifically, it was sent to Research Faculty and Collegiate, or Teaching & Research, faculty). The survey addresses many aspects of data management, including data sharing, which is receiving increased attention from research funders as well as journals. Open data is important for research integrity, reproducibility, meta-research, and accelerating discovery. Some have gone so far as to say that a peer-reviewed article is just advertising for the important stuff- the data. Yet there are numerous barriers to sharing (many of them quite valid) that we need to understand.

The survey results will help us identify how data are being stored, managed, shared, and reused by faculty at Virginia Tech. It will also help us gain a better understanding of data management needs and attitudes towards data sharing and discovery.

The survey is sponsored by the Office of the Vice President for Research and the University Libraries, and administered by the University Libraries. Participation is voluntary and will be recorded confidentially, and no personally identifiable information will be revealed. If you have questions, please contact Yi Shen at or 540-231-5329.

Helping researchers manage data is a top priority for the University Libraries. Your input is essential to help us serve your needs. If you’ve already completed the survey, thank you. If you haven’t, please take a few minutes to complete it- thanks!

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OA Week Event: Faculty and Graduate Student Panel

Our panel of faculty and graduate students is one of the most interesting events of every Open Access Week, and the 2014 version did not disappoint. In the past we’ve hosted separate, consecutive panels, but this year we decided to combine the panels into a single, shorter event.

Faculty and Graduate Student Panel
Faculty and Graduate Student Panel,
Open Access Week 2014 at Virginia Tech

Our faculty panelists were Iuliana Lazar (Biological Sciences), Nicolaus Tideman (Economics), and Randy Wynne (Forest Resources and Environmental Conservation). They were joined by our student panelists, Christian Matheis (Ethics & Political Philosophy, and editor-emeritus of SPECTRA), Caitlin Rivers (Computational Epidemiology, Network Dynamics and Simulation Science Laboratory), and Michelle Sutherland (Educational Media Company, and former editor of Philologia).

Dr. Tideman had several interesting comments to make about the role of copyright in scholarship, which might be summed up by saying that copyright is inappropriate for academia. Dr. Wynne shared concerns such as reproducibility, data citation, and access to research in the developing world. For Caitlin Rivers, who is working on Ebola epidemiology, the data she uses is open, so it only makes sense that the output is too, and it must be available to people in west Africa. When Michelle Sutherland graduated, she lost access to most peer-reviewed research. This is a point that should be made more often, and it is an irony that this happens after four years of instruction from faculty and librarians on finding and using peer reviewed research. Asked what they do when they encounter paywalls, panelists had a variety of responses, from using the Twitter hashtag #icanhazpdf and sharing personal subscriptions among several people, to searching Google Scholar and research networking sites. For the full discussion, see the panel video below. Thanks very much to our panelists for the insight and discussion!

Thanks to the University Libraries’ Event Capture Service for the video below.

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OA Week Event: Keynote Address by Brian Nosek

Brian Nosek, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and co-founder and director of the Center for Open Science, gave the keynote address for Open Access Week 2014 on Monday night, October 20. “Scientific Utopia: Improving the Openness and Reproducibility of Research” noted the gap between scholarly values and how scholarship is actually carried out, and described how the Open Science Framework can help address this issue.

Brian Nosek at Virginia Tech
Brian Nosek, Open Access Week Keynote Address at Virginia Tech

The presentation began with a slide listing the norms (idealistic values) and counternorms (what often happens) of scholarship as opposing pairs, for example communality vs. secrecy. Looking at the counternorms, it was easy to see that these behaviors are aligned with academic incentives and “getting ahead” in general. Nosek also showed the amusing, if disheartening, results of a study comparing researchers’ agreement with the norms, how well their own practices align with the norms, and how well they think the practices of others align with the norms. He then identified current problems in the published literature of positive results and low power, variability in analysis, and selective reporting.

The Center for Open Science helps enable reproducibility, registration, and openness by making them part of the research workflow. COS endeavors to provide the technology to enable change, the training to enact change, and the incentives to embrace change. The technology is the Open Science Framework, which provides versioning, documentation, and other services in addition to connecting parts of a project together (Dropbox, figshare, etc.). COS offers training in statistics, tools, and workflows both online and in-person. And it’s working on incentives such as usage statistics, badges, and registered reports. Interestingly, registered reports move peer review after the design phase rather than after writing the report, addressing the negative results/selective reporting problem. The current incentive in academia is to get published, not to get it right, but COS is helping to change that.

Brian Nosek’s keynote address was delivered to a packed room- we counted 120 attendees. Thanks to everyone who turned out!

Thanks to the University Libraries’ Event Capture Service for the video below.

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Open Access Week 2014 at Virginia Tech

The University Libraries at Virginia Tech is pleased to announce our 2014 Open Access Week schedule! This year we are offering eight events, highlighted by a keynote address from Brian Nosek, a panel discussion on open access by Virginia Tech faculty and graduate students, and a workshop on reproducible research.

Open Access Week 2014

Open Access Week events are open to everyone, and for the first time all events will also be available for NLI credit (look under University Libraries). Here’s more info on our highlighted events:

Brian Nosek
Brian Nosek

A Keynote Address by Brian Nosek, Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and co-founder of the Center for Open Science. His talk is titled “Scientific Utopia: Improving the Openness and Reproducibility of Research” and is sponsored by the Department of Psychology, the College of Science, and the University Libraries. (Monday October 20 at 5:30 pm in Pamplin 30, full details here.)

A Panel Discussion on Open Access, featuring faculty and graduate students at Virginia Tech. This is always an engaging event and it’s interesting to hear how folks from different disciplines are involved with open access. (Tuesday October 21 at 5:30 pm in the Library Multipurpose Room, full details here.)

A Workshop on Reproducible Research Practices, led by the Center for Open Science. Bring your laptop and please RSVP for this one. (Thursday October 23 at 3:00 pm in the Library Multipurpose Room, full details here.)

And we have five additional events, including sessions on our Open Access Subvention Fund, using Creative Commons licenses, author rights, and trends in scholarly publishing. See our full schedule for details, and help us spread the word by posting the schedule flyer and keynote address flyer on your office door and/or local bulletin board. Feel free to contact me at if you have any questions. See you then!

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Students: Apply for OpenCon 2014 Scholarships!

Graduate and undergraduate students at Virginia Tech are encouraged to apply for one of two available travel scholarships to OpenCon 2014, the student and early career researcher conference on Open Access, Open Education, and Open Data to be held on November 15-17, 2014 in Washington, DC.

OpenCon 2014

The scholarships cover travel expenses, lodging, and some meals. One scholarship will be awarded to a graduate student, and the other will be awarded to a graduate or undergraduate student. Virginia Tech students must use the following URL to apply by Friday, September 26:

To find out more about the conference, see the conference program and the participant FAQ. This international conference offers an unparalleled opportunity to learn about the growing culture of openness in academia and how to become a participant in it. The travel scholarships are sponsored by the Graduate School and the University Libraries’ Open Access Week committee. For questions, please contact Philip Young,

Winners will be selected on the basis of their answers to the application questions, and announced on October 3. Please spread this opportunity to VT students far and wide, and good luck!

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Open Textbooks Available for Review

OpenStax Textbook Display

The University Libraries invites students and faculty to peruse a collection of open textbooks on display next to the reference desk on the second floor of Newman Library. Traditional textbooks tend to be very expensive, but open textbooks such as these from OpenStax College have several free online formats (the iBooks are $4.99) and are much cheaper in hardback form (the cost of printing, usually $30-$50). Students interested in reducing textbook costs can take pre-printed information from the display to give to their professors. More information is available in the OpenStax College Textbook Display FAQ. Our hard copy display should be around for a few weeks, or you can explore the books on the OpenStax website.

Open textbooks benefit faculty as well because they are offered under an open license (the Creative Commons Attribution, or CC-BY, license), allowing faculty to re-use, remix, and adapt course material to their liking. The textbooks are written and peer reviewed by subject experts (usually faculty, who are listed just inside the front cover) and are already in use at many universities, including Virginia Tech, where the Sociology textbook has been used in the SOC 1004 course. Supplemental materials are also available for faculty- for example, there are slides and a test bank for the Sociology textbook.

There are currently nine textbooks available (shown below), with four available soon (Pre-calculus, Chemistry, U.S. History, and Psychology). OpenStax College, a nonprofit publisher based at Rice University, recently announced that 21 titles will be available by 2017.

OpenStax Textbooks

Open textbooks are just one form of open educational resources (OER), which include openly licensed online simulations, courseware, images, audio, video, tutorials, modular course components and more. Anita Walz, our OER Librarian, organized the textbook display and has created an OER Finding Guide. There will also be a library webpage on OER available soon. If you are a faculty member interested in reviewing one of these (or other) open textbooks, or are looking for other types of OER, please contact Anita at

OpenStax College textbooks are available through Summon by searching for “OpenStax”, and we also offer a guide to finding specific textbooks in the library.

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The TechniCity MOOC: An Interview with Tom Sanchez

Last summer I wrote a brief post about access to scholarship in a MOOC co-taught by Tom Sanchez, Professor in Urban Affairs and Planning, shortly after the course’s initial offering. After TechniCity was offered again this past spring, I thought I would ask Tom more questions about the course.

Tom Sanchez
Tom Sanchez

The interview below took place via e-mail over a few weeks in late July and early August. Other than a couple of typos and linking text, no edits have been made. However, the order of the questions has been changed to make more thematic sense. Thanks to Tom for his patience with my questions.

First, tell us about the course and your goals in co-teaching it.

The course is about how technology is being used to improve cities through capturing and utilizing new sources of social, economic, and environmental information. Ideally this information will lead to better decision-making by individuals and their communities. Jennifer Evans-Cowley (at Ohio State University) and I both taught courses about cities and technology and while discussing online education at a conference, decided to combine efforts and teach a MOOC on the topic. Neither of us had taught a MOOC before, so it was also an experiment with the MOOC platform. Ohio State University is a Coursera member (Virginia Tech is not), so we co-taught the course on Coursera. We knew it would be a lot of work, so we decided to teach it together with the help of two doctoral students and an instructional technologist from Ohio State.

Can you give us some demographics of the course participants, and whether there were any changes in them from the first offering?

The first time we offered the course there were over 21,000 students signed up and the second time we had over 11,000. The locations of students were nearly the same both times with about 4% from Africa, 18% from Asia, 1% from Australia, 33% from Europe, 36% from North America, and 8% from South America. We only collected simple demographics like age, gender, and location. The average student age was 33 years old and most were male (65%). The students were from nearly 100 countries and nearly 60 percent of them living in cities with 500,000 or more people. These characteristics were similar for both course offerings.

How many students completed the course?

Like other MOOCs the participation rate was relatively high, but the completion rates were low. In the first class we had 343 complete the course and about 185 in the second class. Large numbers of students view most of the course videos and other materials as well as engage in online discussion, but assignments and projects tend to reduce the numbers of students actually completing the course.

Do you know if there were any course participants from Virginia Tech?

This past Spring we had students taking the MOOC for credit at Ohio State (about 25) and Virginia Tech (about 12). We created a separate Google+ Community for these students to engage with each other and discuss course topics and projects. The instructors spent more individual time with students taking the class for credit and provided direct comments on projects/assignments.

What support (technical, administrative, or otherwise) did you have here at Virginia Tech for co-teaching the course, and were there any areas where you could have used more support?

I received support from Anne Moore, Gardner Campbell, and Jennifer Sparrow (InnovationSpace). Unfortunately none of them are still at VT. Anne and Gardner provided resources for me to buyout a course to concentrate on developing the MOOC. Jennifer and InnovationSpace provided much needed help with video production. The technical help from Ohio State (Tom Evans) was invaluable because no one at VT was working with Coursera. It would have been impossible otherwise. If you’re going to build a MOOC you’ll need to know about video and I’m not sure if most universities are ready to help large numbers of faculty with this.

What is your sense of the interest from Virginia Tech faculty in teaching a MOOC?

A colleague in UAP, Jocelyn Widmer, has extensive experience teaching online and has expressed interest in MOOCs. Other than that I haven’t heard much discussion.

Has co-teaching the course affected your teaching at Virginia Tech?

The course has changed my outlook on teaching. It was much more work than I anticipated, and I learned quite a bit in the process. I think our course is well-suited to the online format, but may not work for other types of courses. And not all students care for distance learning, online courses in particular. I believe online courses will improve over time as we adapt technologies to different learning styles. The key is learning how to learn, regardless of the platform.

The TechniCity e-book (PDF) is a nice resource to make available. Was it intended mostly for prospective students?

The e-book is a good way for us to show prospective students what the course is about. I think it is also a good way for us to document what we’ve accomplished. Because the course is about rapidly changing technology it will be interesting to build a record of topics and activities. Assembling the e-book is a good way to reflect on course structure.

You have an article in press about the course- does it include the results of the post-course student survey?

Yes, we include summaries of the pre-, mid-, and post-course surveys in the article (forthcoming in the International Journal of E-Planning Research). These were valuable sources of information as we made changes to the course. The post-course surveys help us to gauge interest in particular topics, activities, and overall structure. One of the challenges is that because the course is free, if students don’t like it they can just stop participating with no penalty. We have a survey for those who un-enroll but the response rate isn’t too high. These are the people we’d really like to get more information from to improve the course because those who finish it tend to be the ones who liked it.


Last year we communicated briefly about the difficulty of ensuring that the course materials were openly available to everyone, which can be a problem for peer-reviewed articles in an international environment. What was your experience this time around?

We mainly relied on open and accessible materials available on the web. In our course, many of the case studies and recent research has not been published in peer-reviewed form yet, with the best resources already available for free on the internet. With so much free information available, we have plenty to cover our topics.

Do you think MOOCs have influenced the need for openly available information?

I’m not sure, but so far I haven’t seen any evidence of it. Many of the MOOCs that I’m familiar with are relying on video/lecture, assignments, and discussion, rather than “reading” materials from books, journals, etc. So much is already available online so in many cases there seems to be plenty of options.

Course ownership has been a faculty concern with some MOOCs. Who owns TechniCity?

Jennifer Evans-Cowley and I consider the course materials to be openly accessible even though Coursera isn’t necessarily open (unless you sign up for a course). We haven’t run into a situation yet where we had to tell someone we couldn’t share information from or about the course. That I know of we have not had any situations where Coursera restricted us from doing so either. The question of “ownership” hasn’t come up.

MOOCs are often cast as a disruptive innovation that could threaten higher education– what is your take?

In my opinion MOOCs are just another form of online education. Perhaps the disruptive aspects are the scale and cost. The issue with new models of education is that both the instructor AND the learner need to understand the process and expectations. I think we should actually be teaching more classes about learning, knowledge, and discovery – but unfortunately you don’t see those words used on job descriptions so we don’t make them priorities. The only threat to higher education is higher education itself. In many cases these are very slow moving institutions that are more than happy to keep doing things the old way. I think the university business model is in dire need of change.

Looking at the syllabus, open data seems to play a large role in this course—how would you summarize the challenges and opportunities for cities in providing it?

The challenge is to organize the huge amount of data generated by and within cities, and make it available in meaningful and useful ways for residents, businesses, and entrepreneurs. I think cities can provide the data and have the crowd come up with innovative ways to use it. This is especially exciting when it enhances transparency and accountability. An example is the City of Baltimore (see: The site makes data available as well as analytical tools, maps, and other visualizations. There are some great research opportunities as well.

Do you think students were well prepared for interaction with data, or do you see a need for more training in the use and manipulation of data?

I think this is a particular need in the field of planning, especially with the rise of “big data” and associated analytics. Planning programs tend to require quantitative methods, but usually in the form of statistics and not really “data science”. Many students coming to planning have design interests so data analysis isn’t of particular interest. There will continue to be more and more demand for data experts.

Do you plan to teach the course again next year?

Yes, we’ll be teaching it again, probably in the Spring. This will give us another opportunity to improve the course using feedback we received from students so far.

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Book Review: The Virtues of Openness

The Virtues of Openness

The Virtues of Openness: Education, Science, and Scholarship in the Digital Age by Michael A. Peters and Peter Roberts (2012) will appeal to anyone interested in open movements in respect to academia. The book includes eight chapters (three of which were previously published), an introduction, postscript, and extensive references. The authors are both professors of education in New Zealand (Peters at the University of Waikato; Roberts at the University of Canterbury).

In addition to exploring the many aspects of openness (which makes defining it so difficult), the authors make an important point that bears remembering when we are tempted by binary conceptions such as open or not (Introduction, p.6):

All open systems have limits, and there are limits to openness– limits to “open” markets, to open societies, to open code.

It’s a theme the authors return to repeatedly, particularly in the context of the philosophy of education, also noting that these limits can serve positive functions.

Chapter 4, “Open Education and Open Knowledge Production” (p. 55-76) covers the serials crisis and open access with the greatest depth, but I learned the most from Chapter 2, “The Philosophy of Open Science” (p. 30-42), and Chapter 3, “Openness as an Educational Virtue” (p. 43-54). Chapter 2 begins by emphasizing the narratives of openness in the West and their relation to Enlightenment thought, in particular the ways in which openness is freedom. The bulk of the chapter goes on to consider philosophies of openness from various thinkers. Of particular interest are the connections between thinkers leading up to the concept of open access for scholarly literature. Karl Popper (author of The Open Society And Its Enemies) was a strong influence on George Soros, whose Open Society Institute (now the Open Society Foundations) was the driving force behind the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Here the political conception of an open society contains both the market and science as primary institutions based on shared values of freedom and truth, though it’s worth noting how often these institutions are in conflict today. Indeed, the authors make this clear in their summary of Chapter 4 (p. 76):

In essence, the open knowledge economy provides a completely different model to the neoliberal knowledge economy and also challenges the underlying neoliberal ideas of ownership, authorship, human capital, and intellectual property rights as well as principles of the access, distribution, and creation of knowledge.

In chapter 3 (“Openness as an Educational Virtue”), a philosophy of openness in pedagogy focuses on the work of Brazilian educationist Paulo Freire. Openness, the authors contend, includes but is not limited to open-mindedness, and is contrasted with forms of closure such as “dogmatism, excessive certainty, and an unreflective rejection of either the old or the new” (p. 44). Throughout his career, Freire identified human characteristics of value in teaching and learning situations, such as “humility, the ability to listen, showing care and respect for those with whom we work in educational settings, tolerance, an inquiring and investigative frame of mind, and a willingness to take risks” (p. 49). For Freire, openness is a permanent orientation to life itself, recognizing that we are always unfinished beings.

The authors view the university emphasis on performance as a form of closure in Chapter 5 (“Scholarly Publishing and the Politics of Openness: Knowledge Production in Contemporary Universities”), stating that “it is performance, not knowledge, that counts” (p. 82, 83):

Performance, as measured by lists of “outputs,” becomes the accepted substitute for knowledge and is seen as translatable across individuals, departmental groupings, disciplines, and institutions.

And these outputs must be quantified (p. 84):

…research activity counts only insofar as it is measurable. Behind this trend lies a quest for certainty, a discomfort with that which is complex or messy, and an inability to deal with the immeasurable.

Although the ongoing revolution in scholarly communication also relies in part on measurables such as review and altmetric scores, it shows a willingness to deal with uncertainty and the immeasurable through open peer review and post-publication peer review. The authors identify an interesting casualty of the culture of performativity, which is time, or the lack of it (p. 87). One problem not addressed here is that being open is more time-consuming in the current publishing environment. Those who want to be open must make additional effort, whether it is seeking out an open access journal, archiving their manuscript, or organizing, describing, and providing access to their data. Clearly norms must change so that closure is not the easy, time-saving alternative. Time pressures also drive quantification in academic evaluation, since it is faster to look at scores than to read someone’s scholarship.

At times The Virtues of Openness shows considerable overlap in chapter topics; at other times the transitions between chapters are jarring, perhaps because some were previously published. As such, the book feels like a collection of chapters rather than a connected narrative. Also, a few of the figures and tables are either not particularly enlightening (“Applications of openness” on p. 67) or outdated (2001 scientific publishing market players, p. 58).

However, this volume is a solid resource for those interested in exploring the thinkers who have contributed to the philosophy of openness in a variety of disciplines. The authors do an admirable, mostly jargon-free job of introducing and clarifying different aspects of openness, and of emphasizing its limits.

The Virtues of Openness is available in Newman Library and from the publisher.

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Thoughts on The Internet’s Own Boy

Over the weekend I got around to watching The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz which saw wide release a couple of weeks ago (see the viewing options on the distributor’s site or watch on the Internet Archive- it’s CC-licensed).

Aaron Swartz
Aaron Swartz
(by Sage Ross,
Wikimedia Commons
CC-BY-SA 2.0)

It’s a fascinating documentary that should be required viewing for anyone interested in access to information. Swartz’s immense intelligence and idealism shine through, as does his love of libraries and the information contained in them. His precocity and deep understanding of the Internet resulted in numerous successes, some of which I wasn’t previously aware of.

Ultimately it was his willingness to put his name on the Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, followed by action to presumably realize it (though his intent is unknown), that made him a target of prosecution. Watching this part of the documentary, the harshness of the law becomes clear, and one wonders what part of the law legitimizes prosecution for the purpose of making an example of someone.

While I don’t agree with the manifesto’s method, or even much of its language, Swartz was certainly right about open access, just as he was right about public access to court records and the potential harm of SOPA/PIPA. Even if all new peer-reviewed literature is openly available tomorrow, we are still left with the intractable fact that we have allowed centuries of scholarship to be enclosed, and libraries will be paying rent (for the fortunate few) for decades to come.

When this CC-licensed documentary can be taken off of YouTube, and when lawyers are preparing for the return of SOPA/PIPA, the contest between advocates of openness and the forces of enclosure is hardly over. Despite his tragic end, we have a model of courage when we insist that our practices follow our ideals– in particular, that public knowledge should never be enclosed. In that sense, Aaron Swartz is still with us.

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