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Is it OA or OER? And, what’s in it for me?

By Chrystal Pickell Vandervest
Read time: 3 minutes

I’m sure you know all about OA and OER. But, it can be hard to put the words together to talk about it with others (or even find the time to do this). And, it’s important to be able to easily explain the difference between the two. 

Not only that, but Faculty and students want to know what’s in it for them! Without their support, open won’t be adopted campus-wide. 

So what exactly is open access? Why should I care about it?

As you know, the cost of traditional journals outpace budget increases and rarely take into account budget decreases. Libraries are forced to cancel eJournal subscriptions which limit the access their students and faculty have to these resources (and the included knowledge). This slows progress in the scientific and scholarly communities and reduces the impact.1 

You and your faculty might be aware of the loss of these valuable resources, but students don’t know what they’re missing out on. If an article a student finds doing research for their Human Growth and Development course requires a login or payment, they close it and look for another article that they can access for free (either OA or through a paid library resource). The student has no idea if the article they first wanted was exactly what they needed, and they miss out on what could’ve had the BEST information. They settle for something that’s good enough but not great!

Open access has swooped in like a caped crusader to save the day! Any literature that is digital, free of cost, and free from copyright and licensing restrictions (well, most restrictions) is considered open access.1

Open access doesn’t mean that there aren’t financial costs incurred by the institution. But, the open access model is efficient and better aligned with the scientific mission of sharing openly with scholarly publishing.2

The below “Research Articles Cycles” graphic shows the comparison between the current and optimized funding cycles for research articles. You can see the downside of the current funding is slow progress and a poor return on public investment. And, you can see the upside of an optimized funding cycle where scientific progress is accelerated and there is an optimal return on public investment. 

Research articles cycles

I want to take a quick pause to touch on the importance of the ‘free from most copyright and licensing restrictions’ part of the definition. OA resources have no embargo period, the research data is shared with the article, the authors keep their copyright, and they use a Creative Commons license that allows for text and data mining.3 There are many resources that say they are OA but don’t meet these requirements.  

As part of the public, both faculty and students benefit from articles being accessed for free and with open licenses. This means OA is more equitable (anyone can read it) and collaborative (anyone can add to it).2 The student I talked about above who passed on a needed article can now get to it and use it to inform their research paper! 

If that’s OA, what about open educational resources (OER)?

OA and open educational resources (OER) are like cousins in the open ecosystem. 

Your institution’s incoming freshmen are both nervous and excited to start their college careers. They’ve registered for classes and moved away from home to live with strangers. Among all the things they need to do to prepare for their first day of classes, they also have to buy textbooks! 

It can come as a shock when they see the prices adding up at checkout: $400 + $800 + $600 + $400 for a total of $2,200 (for just one semester)! I’d like to say that I’m making this up, but we both know this is exactly what happens. And, many students start the first day (or even month) of classes without textbooks while they wait for a rental or loan money.

Another (not caped this time) crusader comes in to save these students’ wallets and keep them from falling behind in their very first semester. **drumroll** It’s OER. Free to use, share, and build upon, OER has become integral to students and faculty.4 

Students will save money and have all the resources they need from day one, setting them up for success! They also benefit from the knowledge faculty contribute to and build on in OER with their own research and expertise. Each iteration gets better and better!

The most identifiable format of OER is usually structured like a familiar textbook, but OER can come disguised as videos, articles, or entire degree programs.5 The familiar format of open textbooks makes them easy for faculty to adopt and easy for students to use. They are a win-win!

Isn’t there more?

I’ve only talked about a few of the benefits OA and OER bring to your faculty and students. There are many more! I’d love to hear stories about how both have benefited your faculty, students, and you in the library. Send me an email at with the subject line, “How open has benefited us at [your institution]” and tell me all about it.


This article is the fifth (and final) in a series Chrystal Pickell Vandervest is writing as part of the Creative Commons certification course. The full collection of articles can be found on MCLS’s Creative Commons articles page

The content of this article is not professional advice. It’s for educational and informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional advice. You are encouraged to seek professional advice and counsel. 

“Is it OA or OER? And, what’s in it for me?” by Chrystal Pickell Vandervest is licensed by
MCLS under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0

Image Attributions

Research Article Cycles” by Billymeinke is licensed under CC BY 4.0.


1Open Access Publishing/pg. 149. “Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM” by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0.
2Open Access Publishing/pg. 150. “Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM” by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0.
3Open Access/pg. 147. “Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM” by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0.
4OER, Open Textbooks, and Open Courses/pg. 156. “Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM” by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0.
5OER and Open Textbooks/pg. 159. “Creative Commons Certificate for Educators, Academic Librarians and GLAM” by Creative Commons. CC BY 4.0.