With the beginning of every semester comes the ever-going debate about textbooks. Should I buy my books? Online or in store? Is it worth it to rent my books? Can I find it from a friend or at the student book exchange? Doing the full research into all of these options is far too complex to really achieve the perfect solution (although some of you may insist you have found the secret). Wouldn’t this task be so much easier if all textbooks were found in one place and FREE?
Thanks to the open-source revolution, many textbooks can be found online ready for you to read. As of recent, a few organizations have dedicated their time to finding authors willing to write and publish for the general public.
Open-source textbooks are unique in the fact that they are for the most part living documents. Authors don’t have to go through the lengthy process of publishing new editions to their books with every typo they find. Authors are not the only ones able to edit and contribute to textbooks. Instructors have the can remove chapters they don’t plan on covering or add in their own resources. This really strengthens the bonds between the teacher, the textbook and the student.
Now, why in the world would an author spend an incredible amount of time and money to just give away what they have cultivated? Well, the open-source publishing companies understand that instructors not only want the textbooks but the homework sets, lecture slides, and other resources. Even though the textbooks may be offered without a cost, these other materials can be sold to the individuals or institutions. The sales generated from these materials allow the authors to be provided with the wages allotted given their work.
As the economy that surrounds us continues on its gloomy path, buying textbooks is becoming increasingly difficult. Ultimately, the publishing companies would be better off just selling the extra lecture resources, than wasting their money on hardcopy publishing cost to only have a quarter of a class be able to buy books. The extra ‘package’ that these companies market only runs between $20 and $40, definitely more affordable than just the textbook.
Overall, open-source textbooks sound absolutely fantastic. The students pay less, the instructors can tailor the material, and the authors still get paid. So, what’s the problem here?
This is where the phrase ‘you get what you pay for’ really hits home. With an open-source network you can never be sure what the quality level of the text may be. The text may not cover the most current topics and even then may not go as in depth. It depends on what lengths the author is willing to go to create a free product.
Understanding the tendency for open-source textbooks to be lacking in quality, some instructors have tried to encourage a peer review process for each book. This way the instructor can go through and critique the text and share their comments alongside the textbook. Unfortunately, not many instructors are too apt to peer review textbooks on their own time. Some universities have offered professors stipend incentives to stimulate more critiques of open-source textbooks.
Is it fair to the author to release their work for free to the general public?
Should the author be able to have a say as to what the instructors contribute to these textbooks?
What could be a good way to ensure that these textbooks are of high quality?
How can we know that the price of the extra lecture material will remain at a reasonable level?
There are a lot of questions that need solving. Any ideas?
By: Carali Van Otteren
(Photo by Sarah Cady under a Creative Commons license)