Editor’s note: Today’s post is by Emma Wood, Scholarly Communication Librarian at UMass Dartmouth.

Controlled vocabulary is a cornerstone of the library profession. Information can be more readily retrieved when consistent keywords and language are attached. I have been thinking about this  when it comes to the pluralized version of OER I have commonly seen as “OERs”. Is this proper verbiage when Open Educational Resources (OER) inherently has an “s” at the end? A  2014 blog post tackled the OER/OERs debate and concluded that, “The preponderance  of evidence seems to favor the authority of OER without clearly suppressing OERs.” Nearly a decade later, this is still true, but the case for OERs has grown with its continued (mis)use. 

Screengrab from "Highlander" via YouTube

I researched plural acronyms to determine how best to apply grammatical rules to OER. In general, we  add a lowercase “s” to indicate a plural abbreviation such as ATMs or UFOs when the articles comprising an acronym are singular. The APA style guide follows this rule (pg. 173-74, 7th ed.). Using an  apostrophe to pluralize an abbreviation is discouraged, but it is sometimes necessary to avoid  confusion – or in situations where there are periods between each letter in an abbreviation.  

When writing, I always seek examples. I suppose this is where I trust the “if everyone jumped off a cliff” model, and I presume that if enough authors have jumped, I can cautiously jump too. I have seen  plenty of academics and subject experts use OERs. LibGuides using OERs are abundant. Just this month, I attended a virtual OER conference and observed OERs in the Zoom chat. I have seen it in peer-reviewed scholarly publications, and OERs  appears several times in the Wikipedia entry for Open Educational Resources. 

(“OER Resources” is another term of seemingly “not right” redundancy that I have seen in type and  spoken aloud as well. It is also a common mistake to drop the “al” and write or say Open Education Resources in place of Open Educational Resources.) 

Lack of clarity on this pluralization norm seems to stem from two things. First, the term OER is used synonymously to refer to the concept of implementing or employing open resources rather than to evoke only the resources themselves. It’s the word for the big picture. For example, I might say that my institution “firmly believes in OER.” The intent of this statement is more than openly licensed textbooks and ancillaries themselves; It is intended to bring to the reader’s mind  the tenets of open, a philosophy. That philosophy is singular, OER without an implied s. I could and  linguistically should use the lesser-known Open Education (OE) acronym. But here’s the thing – whenever we are talking about OER, advocates are trying their hardest NOT to confuse and lose their audience. Thus, if we are educating on OER, it can feel like a detour to pepper in too much OE and OA. Also, OE has not been the community norm when it comes to this overarching topic.  

Secondly, there are weird, awkward grammatical things that happen when placing irregular verbs and other little words around the three-letter acronym OER. It is inherently plural, but still, something feels wrong about “OER are great tools for teaching and learning.” It feels icky, so people tend to pop  an “s” on the end for clarity. See, instant relief — “OERs are great tools for teaching and learning.”

OER use can be likened to the way acronyms for organizations, when used as nouns, do not need  articles before them. Technically speaking, it would be correct to say “The ALA” when you consider that ALA stands for American Library Association, but we drop “the” and simply ALA is sufficient (i.e., ALA is a group of professionals).  

There is a useful parallel between Open Educational Resources (OER) and United States (U.S.) in that  they are both acronyms that technically represent multiple of something and also a larger whole. We  would not successfully clarify with U.S.s because just states would be sufficient whereas just resources would not. And unlike the forementioned organization, ALA, U.S. typically keeps article “the” before it. All to say, some abbreviations need special rules. 

Word usage and human habit drive the rules of language, and often lead to adding words to the  dictionary or changing the meaning of a word. Take a look at Chapter 5 in English Historical Semantics by Christian Kay and Kathryn Allan, “How and Why Words Change Meaning of English Historical Semantics”, for a detailed explanation on this. 

Even with the rules of language pointing to OER not OERs, folks have adapted and continue to use the latter. If we agree that OERs is incorrect and even take out a billboard, would that prevent OERs from being uttered or written? Further, this rascally phrase is littered all over our history as it appears in scholarly articles, websites, official correspondence, etc. It would be difficult to completely disown it.  

I do find UFO and ATM in the Oxford English Dictionary (available online through the Boston Public Library), however I don’t find an entry for OER. Perhaps it should be strongly suggested as a new addition. It could only help the OER cause, and outline some of the rules of usage. 

Sometimes persistent mistakes lead to accepted terminology. There are some interesting examples in “11 Words That Started Out As Spelling Mistakes“, but I would not recommend adopting OERs. Rather my conclusion is that OERs is wrong technically speaking, but it sometimes feels so right, and it is a sort of colloquialism used for clarity. It’s less of an “irregardless” mistake and  more of an attempt to not confuse the audience. I’d love to see an authoritative dictionary entry on the matter. It may help with peer-reviewed papers, though I think the language quirks surrounding  OER will persist.


6 Thoughts on "Guest Post — OER or OERs: Can There Can Be Only One (Acronym)?"

Oooo-ER! You have opened a big COWs here!
Surely in a regular sentence “an Open Educational Resource is” becomes “an OER is” and “the Open Educational Resources are” becomes “the OERs are”. Just like ATMs and PCs.
Now we just have to decide if “Prisoners Of War” should be “POWs” or “PsOW”.

ATM Machine, like PDF Format, is it’s own can of worms, part of what’s called RAS Syndrome:

I discussed this with my Editors in Chief (EIC/EICs) as well as looking up how many Runs Batted In (RBI/RBIs) my favorite baseball player has.

TLA acronyms are pretty troublesome, but the 4-letter ones are worse, as people just don’t seem to get what XTLA stands for.

What’s your “ORC ID”? No, what’s your “ORCID”? Pansy Orchids (Miltoniopsis) are my favorite. 😀

My people! Highlander and OED references in one post, thank you! For anyone with a passion for words and their intersection with individuals and society, if you haven’t read it yet, I highly recommend The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams. I just finished this novel based on the real people behind the first edition of the OED which was initiated in 1879 and completed in 1928, 71 years later. The second edition was completed in 1989, 61 years later, and in 2000 became an online subscription resource.

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