XX.4 July + August 2013
Page: 68
Digital Citation

Publishing open access HCI books

Rikke Dam, Mads Soegaard

Is it possible to publish top-grade educational materials written by leading HCI academics and designers to help readers learn to design products that are more efficient, productive, and pleasurable—and to give these materials away for free?

This article is a summary of our experiences with open access publishing at the Interaction Design Foundation (IDF). We distribute free educational materials at interaction-design.org to enable any student, self-starter, or professional with access to the Internet to learn cutting-edge HCI and design theories, methods, and approaches.

The present centerpiece of the IDF is the ever-expanding Encyclopedia of Human-Computer Interaction, targeted at graduate students and industry professionals. Encyclopedia currently includes 35 highly illustrated chapters/textbooks with HD video interviews.

The Pros of Open Access Publishing

The obvious advantage of an open access approach to publishing is readership and impact. Based on long-running and precise measurements, our current authors have a readership that is a staggering 20,000 percent greater than that of their previous most popular publications. That is quite an achievement, since we have invited only leading figures with great track records in publishing.

The contributing authors—currently more than a hundred from across the high-tech universe—are nominated through an online process (http://www.interaction-design.org/nominate) and currently include: Clayton Christensen, professor at Harvard, New York Times bestseller, and architect of and foremost authority on disruptive innovation; Steve Mann, known for his contributions to wearable computing; Stu Card, senior research fellow at Xerox PARC and a pioneer in human-computer interaction; Robert Spence, who invented the Focus+Context Display familiar to anyone with an iPhone or iMac; and Don Norman, who also serves as chairman of the IDF executive board.

As well as the ongoing work on Encyclopedia, in March 2013 the IDF’s first full textbook, The Social Design of Technical Systems: Building Technologies for Communities, was published and will be followed by many more. Both the Encyclopedia chapters and the full textbooks are peer-reviewed and professionally edited and developed.

A second advantage of open access publishing is the societal one: Traditional publishing relies on a monetary relationship between author/publisher and the reader. This pay-for-access relationship excludes vast numbers of potential readers, including many in the developing world. Twenty percent of the IDF’s readers are from developing countries.

A third advantage, through work not being hidden behind pay walls, is better discovery and dissemination through search engines and social media. Tom Erickson (an interaction designer and researcher in the Social Computing Group at IBM’s Watson Labs) contributed an Encyclopedia chapter, which, being freely available, enabled conference chairs to find Erickson and his work: “If you want to reach a vast, diverse audience, this is the place. My chapter led to at least two keynote invitations and a variety of other connections including (rather ironically) one with someone in my own company.”

The Cons of Open Access Publishing

The primary—and obvious—disadvantage of open access publishing is financial. Publishing top-grade educational materials is a cost-intensive mission, and giving them away freely makes neither publisher nor author rich.

From a traditional business perspective, open access publishing is a ridiculous and counter-intuitive enterprise, and is thus possible only when run for love and not money. While love may be a nebulous term, we are quite serious about it. We found it is the most descriptive word for our authors’ contributing hard work for free: They love their discipline and want to help it grow—within and beyond the Western intellectual hemisphere; they love helping make the world better by educating designers and students; they love to share their results openly and freely with the whole word; and they love the idea of open access.

The money aspect is the biggest disadvantage of open access publishing. Starting the IDF involved personal sacrifices and large investments of personal capital. The IDF was founded in 2002 by one of this article’s co-authors, Mads Soegaard, who was later joined by his wife and co-author, Rikke Friis Dam. To realize the project, we had to borrow money from our family and invest more than $200,000 of our savings. For a period we moved from Denmark to Thailand, living on a semi-deserted island so we could survive on a shoestring budget and focus 100 percent on the IDF.

The good news is that one of the world’s largest software companies, SAP AG, has recently become an IDF corporate sponsor, in line with the way companies sponsor academic conferences. Such sponsorship is all about involving industry while maintaining academic freedom. Other corporate sponsors are now showing interest in the project, while the IDF’s professionals association and private donations contribute to the operation. The IDF project is now financially secure and self-sustaining.

Another possible way of running an open access nonprofit organization is to get support from philanthropic foundations. OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University made possible through the support of several foundations, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. OpenStax College produces free textbooks for the most-attended subjects in American colleges, so far covering physics, sociology, biology, anatomy, and physiology. The textbooks are peer-reviewed texts written by professional content developers. Online editions are free, and the price of printed copies covers just the costs of production.

Little Money, Big Results: How?

How can we create big results with minimal funds? The key is the free approach. If you owned a bus company, it would be much easier and less bureaucratic to let the passengers ride for free. You could minimize your costs significantly: You would not need the huge administrative work of tickets, ticket validation, reservations, payments, handling of change, and so on. You would, of course, need an alternative income source, but rethinking the core assumption of your business—for example, “a bus ride costs money”—is the first step in reconfiguring and perhaps even revolutionizing your industry. Similarly, at the IDF we have spent the past 10 years rethinking every single assumption of publishing. Using our privately built publication platform, we have redesigned the whole editorial and distribution process with the result that our publishing and marketing processes carry a minimum of costs. More specifically, there is no linear correlation between readership and cost; an increase in readers does not incur an increase in cost (see Figure 1).

Another advantage of our open access approach is the copyright. In traditional publishing, authors sign away rights to and ownership of their own text. Copyright law is used as an instrument to secure the publisher’s return on its significant investment. Authors cannot reuse their own text or republish it later in their career. As the IDF has worked hard to cut down the costs to a 10,000th of those of a regular publisher, there is no significant investment to (over)protect. We have therefore been able to redesign an approach to copyright that offers the author protection while giving readers the freedom to distribute the material. It is a “some rights reserved” approach that is “designed for the author and the reader, not the publisher and the profit,” as our slogan goes.

We use the Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs Licence, by which authors remain in control and allow (and encourage) people to copy and distribute their work provided they give authors visible credit. However, authors do not allow anyone to alter their work in any way or make derivative works without asking for permission. And authors do not allow anyone to use their work in a way that suggests that authors endorse the person/organization using their work.

Rethinking Marketing

Returning to the question of bringing about big results without incurring big costs, we also had to rethink marketing. We wanted to give our authors record readership and impact but at minimal cost, while giving readers free top-grade educational materials written by leading HCI academics and designers. The solution again lay in our free approach.

A traditional publishing approach expects readers to buy articles and textbooks. In other words, a publisher uses a pay wall to minimize readership, not maximize it. This approach rests on the assumption that there should be a monetary relation between author/publisher and the reader. This pay-for-access relation creates a trade-off between readership and profits in which the traditional publisher has to prioritize profit in order to fund its operations.

Because we give highly valuable materials away free, there is no pay-for-access relation. This allows us to use grassroots dissemination of our material, for example, through social media, search engines, mailing lists, commercial classrooms, and so on. With this approach, the readers become our authors’ helpers, not our authors’ customers.

For example, announcing new publications on our own social media channels such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter makes new publications reach more than 60,000 readers interested in HCI and design. Because of our free approach, people really want to share our materials; they are not telling their Facebook friends, “Hey, buy this,” but rather, “Here is something valuable for you.” In addition, a vast network of influential technology and design blog owners helps feature new publications and gives authors prominent exposure.

In other words, the readers effectively do the marketing. Many readers have sent us—and their LinkedIn and Facebook friends—their stories and pictures, a couple of which we illustrate here.

Retooling Higher Education

One of our missions is to help retool higher education by democratizing access to knowledge. The online educational revolution can help provide access to high-quality education for everyone, everywhere, and we think everyone deserves free and open access.

We are working to become a vital supplier of educational materials for massive open online courses (MOOCs) like Udacity, Coursera, edX, and OpenHPI, which ensure that free online courses become accessible to students and entrepreneurs who cannot afford to attend university classes or purchase textbooks. The free courses are also frequently used by regular college students and professionals who simply want to learn new concepts and stay updated.

Olof Schybergson, who serves on the IDF executive board and is the CEO of Fjord, an international design consulting firm, describes the empowerment that online publishing enables:

“The IDF publishing model is a poster child of empowerment. In our Fjord Trends for 2013, we’re predicting accelerated change in the education landscape. Thanks to advances in digital media, learning is shifting from a one-to-many model to a many-to-one model, where people can take tailored pathways of learning—seeking out the topics, sources, and content that best meet their needs. In other words, it’s a shift from an industrialized to a personalized form of education. To design our own learning paths is a meaningful form of design that anyone can practice, and thanks to the positive disruption of the IDF publishing model, people will have free access to the thoughts and insights of a wide range of great authors.”

It is not a question of whether a new high-tech model of higher education is coming, but of how the online revolution will change the world. It is no longer impossible that high-quality education could really be established as a basic human right.

On the other hand, there is still a long way to go. Even in the 21st century, many countries do not provide equal rights to education for their citizens. We are only too aware that in many parts of the world, gender or economic status defines whether a child or young person can have access to high-quality education—or indeed to any education at all. According to the Right to Education Project, 77 million children worldwide are not able to attend school, and of them, girls make up more than 56 percent. Two-thirds of the world’s illiterate adults are women.

Even in the U.S., economic status defines who can get a higher education. College students need to spend more and more money on textbooks. The rising prices challenge the principle of equal rights to education and increase the social skew. According to the College Board, a nonprofit organization that tracks college costs, the average student at a private four-year college in the U.S. spent $1,213 on textbooks during the 2011–12 academic year. According to the Student Public Interest Research Group (SPIRG), open access textbooks could save students up to 80 percent on the bookstore bill.

Open access initiatives help enhance equal rights to education. Education helps men and women to claim their rights and realize their potential in economic, political, and social arenas, and is the single most powerful way to lift people out of poverty. As we provide free online access to high-quality educational materials, we help retool higher education. Our aim is—in all modesty—to contribute to the creation of a better world—in agreement with the UNESCO statement that “universal access to high quality education is key to the building of peace, sustainable social, and economic development, and intercultural dialogue.”


Rikke Friis Dam holds a master’s degree in philosophy and educational philosophy from the University of Aarhus, a degree in making research accessible, and a teaching degree. She was principal and founder of Diamedier, a Danish consultancy company, and has also worked in the U.S., Mongolia, Honduras, Malaysia, and Egypt as a filmmaker, photographer, and divemaster.

Mads Soegaard previously worked in the Danish National Technological Institute on research in industry. He has also worked in the eBusiness Think Tank of DaimlerChrysler Services in Berlin, as a lecturer at the University of Aarhus, and carried out parts of his master’s and Ph.D. studies in Denmark, Australia, Germany, and the U.S.


F1Figure 1. The IDF’s lack of linear correlation between readership and cost compared with a traditional publisher.

UF1Figure. Idyawati is a doctoral candidate at the International Islamic University of Malaysia. Using interaction-design. org, she gets world-class educational materials free and can spend her money on funding an extra semester.

UF2Figure. Olga is an associate professor at Moscow University and uses our materials because they are “of higher quality, faster to access, easier to reference, and well….free!”

Sidebar: Free Educational Resources Available at http://www.interaction-design.org/

  • Textbooks, assembled into an encyclopedia: Open content and peer-reviewed, written by leading figures. A magnum opus on how to design interactive systems;
  • Video library: Interviews with leading technology designers and professors. Filmed around the world;
  • Image library: Royalty-free images suitable for design inspiration, teaching, and publications;
  • Wiki bibliography;
  • Curated calendar of conferences;
  • Curated product catalog to make your work life easier.

©2013 ACM  1072-5220/13/07  $15.00

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