STEM Without OER: Inaccessible or Not Credible

This is the third in our current series of short essays by participants in the Open Knowledge Fellowship coordinated by the Mina Rees Library, these from Fellows in the Spring 2022 cohort. Fellows share insight into the process of converting a syllabus to openly-licensed and/or zero-cost resources, as well as their experiences teaching undergraduate courses at CUNY.

Georgie Efegenia Humphries is a Ph.D. student in Earth and Environmental Sciences. She conducts her research in nutrient biogeochemistry and marine microbiology in coastal/estuarine systems under the supervision of Dr. Dianne I. Greenfield at the Advanced Science Research Center. Georgie additionally teaches Environmental Science Laboratory courses at Queens College. 

The inaccessibility of credible STEM literature breeds inaccessibility to STEM fields themselves. In a domain where one out of every six STEM Ph.D. holders end up leaving the field, the majority of which are female and/or black Ph.D.s [1], the concept of exclusivity in our literature seems almost archaic. As a scientist working under a research-based institution, browsing through peer-reviewed articles in notable journals is not a challenge considering my institution pays the hefty annual fees imposed to gain access to these journals. But the same cannot always be said for undergraduate science students. Paywalls act as blockades to a student’s scientific curiosity, posing what concerns me as a potential challenge for those who may already feel underrepresented or experience a low sense of belonging in STEM (a factor found to be related to students’ leaving STEM majors during their undergraduate careers [2]). 


The fees pertaining to publishing Open Access (OA) often fall on the individual scientist and/or their institution, with Article Processing Fees (APCs) for each paper reaching upwards of $10,000 in a high impact journal such as Nature [3]. Thus, releasing OA is not always a plausible option despite how pertinent the research may be. While this issue has somewhat improved over the years, with increased journals offering OA publishing options and social media networking sites such as Research Gate allowing for direct contact with authors, it remains a common experience to be met with a paywall asking for “39.95 USD” to access a single PDF, thus capping the amount of pertinent information that’s accessible to the public. 

 In a field of high contemporary relevance such as Environmental and Climate sciences, the issue of paywall-hidden literature is even more dire. The most recent International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report has stated with high confidence that there has been irreversible, anthropogenically-derived damages caused to both natural and human systems due to climate change impacts [4]. If all subsequent research into this timely issue is inaccessible to the public, and more importantly (in my opinion) to students in the beginning stages of their scientific education, the information that will subsequently take its place will be what is readily accessible. And what is accessible is not always credible, or has been reinterpreted from the mouths of scientists (like a bad game of “Telephone”). With this, finding and properly distributing materials to my Environmental Science students that are both accessible and credible has posed an issue, especially when it comes to allowing for the freedom of their own personal investigations into topics that pique their interest. And believe me, I have caught a plethora of misinformation, cited correctly mind you, in my students’ reports, due to no fault of their own. 

The Open Pedagogy Fellowship (OPF) works with doctoral students who teach at the college level across CUNY, who develop skills in credible handling and distribution of OA and Open Educational Resources (OER) for their courses. Thus, this Fellowship was of interest to me, as incorporating accessible science literature into my pedagogy and subsequent Environmental Science curriculum has been a primary goal. But I simply didn’t know how to do so in the most professional manner prior to joining the OPF Spring 2022 cohort. Thankfully, this fellowship provided me with the proper tools for comprehending the differences between certain licenses and their distribution potential, identifying “predatory journals,” and working with Creative Commons, amongst a plethora of other skills. 

With the skill sets developed in building a CUNY Academic Commons site, and comprehending the differences and distribution potential of literature with OA licenses, it becomes substantially easier for instructors to create a zero-cost course. This also helps to create a more accessible CUNY –  for our students who hail from a variety of backgrounds, and not solely limited to STEM courses. After creating an Academic Commons site, it took some time to determine what its place in my pedagogy would be, considering that there were other instructors leading the same course as myself. This has led to the very early development of an OA library that I am creating in Environmental topics for all students taking the course, which they may access when conducting their personal research. The intention is that they can both utilize what the university’s library has made accessible to them, as well as find truly OA materials in the realm of journals, scientific articles, books, and reports. Despite the site being in its early infancy, I am truly excited to continue the creation of this library that will open barriers for my students, and hopefully facilitate a further interest in STEM topics. 

[1] Turk-Bicakci, L., and Berger, A. (2014). Leaving STEM: STEM Ph.D. Holders in Non-STEM Careers. Issue Brief. American Institutes for Research.

[2] Rainey, K., Dancy, M., Mickelson, R., Stearns, E., and Moller, S. (2018). Race and gender differences in how sense of belonging influences decisions to major in STEM. International Journal of STEM Education. Vol. 5, No. 10.

[3] Nature Portfolio (2021). Open access at the Nature Portfolio: Nature and the Nature research journals – now with immediate gold open access options for all primary research. Nature Official Website.

[4] Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Working Group II (2022). Climate Change 2022 – Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability – Summary for Policy Makers. Cambridge University Press.

Photo by the author.

About the Author

Katherine Pradt is the Adjunct Reference and Digital Outreach Librarian at the Graduate Center.