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.
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.