What is the difference between OER and Open Access (OA)?


Open educational resources (OER) are teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others. Open educational resources include full courses, course materials, modules, textbooks, streaming videos, tests, software, and any other tools, materials, or techniques used to support access to knowledge (Source). [See “What are Open Educational Resources (OER)?” for more information.]

Open Access (OA), on the other hand, refers to scholarly publications released under an open (e.g., Creative Commons) licence, including in open access journals. Open access publishing provides free, immediate, online availability of research articles coupled with the rights to use these articles fully in the digital environment. Open access ensures that anyone can access and use these results—to turn ideas into industries and breakthroughs into better lives (Source).

Two degrees of open access can be distinguished: gratis open access, which is online access free of charge, and libre open access, which is online access free of charge plus various additional usage rights. These additional usage rights are often granted through the use of various specific Creative Commons licenses. Libre open access is equivalent to the definition of open access in the Budapest Open Access Initiative, the Bethesda Statement on Open Access Publishing and the Berlin Declaration on Open Access to Knowledge in the Sciences and Humanities (Source).

There are multiple ways authors can provide open access to their work. One way is to publish it and then self-archive it in a repository where it can be accessed for free, such as their institutional repository, or a central repository such as PubMed Central. This is known as ‘green’ open access. Some publishers require delays, or an embargo, on when a research output in a repository may be made open access. A second way authors can make their work open access is by publishing it in such a way that makes their research output immediately available from the publisher. This is known as ‘gold’ open access, and within the sciences this often takes the form of publishing an article in either an open access journal, or a hybrid open access journal. The latter is a journal whose business model is at least partially based on subscriptions, and only provide Gold open access for those individual articles for which their authors (or their author’s institution or funder) pay a specific fee for publication, often referred to as an article processing charge. Pure open access journals do not charge subscription fees, and may have one of a variety of business models (Source).

Clearly, especially in higher education, the concepts of OER and OA may overlap, as research publications typically form an important part of the overall set of materials that students need to access to complete their studies successfully, particularly at postgraduate level.

Nevertheless, the distinction is worth applying because it allows more nuanced discussion and planning about which kinds of open licences would be most appropriate for different types of resources.

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Butcher, N. (2015). A basic guide to open educational resources (OER). Commonwealth of Learning, Vancouver and UNESCO. Retrieved from http://oasis.col.org/handle/11599/36
Open access. SPARC. Retrieved October 26, 2016.
Open educational resources. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. Retrieved October 6, 2016.