We — University students, staff and faculty — need more information about and support for the available and free open-format software. Some universities, like George Mason University have active education programs to fill this gap. Very good progress has been made here in understanding and supporting open-access to information, and HathiTrust is leading the way here.

But more progress is needed with open-format software — progress in which the coding is known, and no one owns it or limits access or use. This applies not only to programs but to file formats, which can quickly become inaccessible as the access programs are discontinued. Microsoft is the antithesis of open. Our work and information at the University should be in portable file formats that are easily accessible with a variety of programs running on a range of operating systems, not just a recent version of Microsoft Office/Windows. Easy cross-platform access already applies for most image files such as .tif and .jpg, but not for other work files, particularly text files. Individuals and the University have huge investments in our own work files and information. Access shouldn’t be limited by ephemeral programs and expensive tollgates.

A prime example of free open-format software that students should know about is OpenOffice.org, commonly known as OOo. OOo will do everything that most users of office software need in word-processing and spreadsheets, and it is better than Microsoft Office in some areas. Not only is it free, but it readily supports open file formats such as open data text (.odt), which is an international-standard, low-byte-volume, open-format text file. OOo is very intuitive and easy to use. It’s available on the Internet and also on University computing-site computers.

Another useful open program is Zotero, a free, open bibliographic program, which is very useful for keeping track of publications and for instant reference list construction. Zotero is actually supported by the University. If software vendors want to offer proprietary programs with enhanced features to perform special functions to justify the costs, more power to them. But that should not interfere with simple, easy-to-use, open-format programs and our portable, open work files.

Hopefully, in the future, the University will support and offer student and faculty access to computers using the open operating system Linux. Open software, especially Linux, tends to be lean in terms of byte volume and thereby offers an antidote to the software bloat that slows performance, demands ever more hardware capacity and occupies too much storage space. Addressing this bloat could result in huge savings for the University.

The University could also cut costs by going more open, and some aspects of open software development could be shared with other universities. These collaborations add up very quickly, and they provide great experience for students. In the end, the users would own and, most importantly, control the software they depend on. Some great opportunities for collaboration with other institutions have been ignored in the past due to great cost and inconvenience.

From many years of experience, I believe it’s important to have an agile, innovative, on-site IT staff to bring in new technologies and adapt them to local needs. These staffing costs could be covered by cost savings from going to more open software and some shifting and retraining of IT staff as previous needs diminish.

As part of preparing students for the “real world” out there where information access and software are likely to be less accessible and more costly, more needs to be done to make students aware of open-access and open-format software. Students also need to be aware of why open-access and open-format are so important for information access. This would give students a graduation gift of a portable legacy of useful experience. Information is one of the cores of the University’s business. We could do much better in facilitating information access and flow here for the University community and public benefit.

Larry Noodén is a Professor Emeritus of Biology.

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