Headline: “Open textbooks” becoming popular, says CalPIRG study
Layercake: Publishers argue that they are already offering cheaper editions to students
By PATRICK McCARTNEY
Aggie Staff Writer
While most classes continue to use traditional, commercial textbooks, professors are increasingly willing to choose so-called “open” alternatives, according to an Apr. 15 California Public Interest Research Group report.
One thousand professors from over 300 colleges – including 24 from UC Davis – have signed a statement in support of open textbooks, which can be used online for free or printed at low cost. In addition, professors can alter open textbooks to fit their particular needs, making them a viable and cheap alternative to commercial books, according to the report.
CalPIRG coordinator Nicole Allen said one-third of the signatures on the report came from California and half of the state’s community colleges have joined a consortium to support the development of open textbooks.
But the report is not calling for the complete abandonment of commercial textbooks, Allen said.
“Professors should always use the textbook that is best for their class,” she said. “The message that we’re sending is that they want to assign open textbooks that are best for their classes.”
Allen said open textbooks are already in use at top universities, including an economics book at Harvard and Yale.
UC Davis computer science professor Norm Matloff, an author of both commercial and open textbooks, is a strong advocate of open textbooks.
In fact, open textbooks enhance the quality of education because they can be altered and adapted quickly, he said.
“One can constantly update the material to reflect advances in the subject matter, add new examples, improve phrasing and so on, all immediately,” Matloff said in an e-mail interview.
Though it can take more than 10 years of work to make a single revision to a text, commercial books are subject to extensive reviewing, said Stacy Skelly, Assistant Director of Higher Education for the Association of American Publishers.
“Publishers work for years with authors and peer reviewers to ensure the accuracy of their textbooks,” Skelly said in an e-mail interview. “The accuracy of an open source textbook would likely need to be evaluated on a case-by-case basis.”
Matloff discounted the notion that commercial textbooks are more reliable.
“Errors are made, whether the text is commercial or open source. The real reviewing comes when the book is actually used in classes, and that’s where most of the errors are caught,” he said. “In that sense, open source is actually superior to the commercial avenue, because in the open source case the errors can be immediately fixed.”
While authors of open textbooks receive no compensation, CalPIRGaffordable textbooks coordinator Mike Regan said they have a variety of motivations for doing so.
“The common thread in all of [their reasoning] is that they want the material to be read,” said Regan, a senior history major at UC Davis.
Matloff said it’s possible for commercial and open textbooks to exist, citing the parallel example of the software industry.
“The Linux computer operating system is open source, and is popular in certain segments, but Microsoft is still making tons of money from Windows,” he said.
Though CalPIRG claims “publisher tactics drives the demand for high-quality, low-cost books,” the industry is actually offering cheaper, digital alternatives, said Stacy Skelly, assistant director for higher education at the American Association of Publishers.
Skelly said six major publishers have partnered to launch CourseSmart, an online retailer of electronic books that are available “at up to 50 percent off the traditional textbook price,” she said.
In addition, publishers have increased their offerings of lower-cost options, such as black and white editions, loose-leaf editions and split editions, she said. Publishers also collaborate with faculty to create custom textbooks with only necessary materials for a course, she said.
“Publishers continue to be interested in finding new ways to deliver content and will continue to explore new business models,” Skelly said in an e-mail interview.
When asked if the CalPIRG report would influence the industry into offering more alternatives, Skelly said no. Furthermore, a pledge by 1,000 professors isn’t as significant as it initially may seem, she said.
“Publishers already offer alternative versions,” she said. “Keep in mind that 1,000 faculty out of the 1 million faculty working in America’s higher education is a small percentage (.1 percent).”
Reagan acknowledged that while 1,000 may not be a relatively large number, the concept of open textbooks is still “pretty new.”
“This is still a small market; there’s no centralized push for it,” Reagan said. “For 1,000 professors to jump onto this right now is a pretty big deal. It’s only going to continue to grow.”
Matloff’s open textbook, “From Algorithms to Z-Scores: Probabilistic and Statistical Modeling in Computer Science,” can be accessed at heather.cs.ucdavis.edu/~matloff/probstatbook.
PATRICK McCARTNEY can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.