Are open textbooks still on the way? And when will they arrive?

August 31, 2017

If you talk about Open Access to most university staff – teachers, researchers, students, librarians – they automatically think of OA journals with articles available without cost to the whole world, or of subscription-funded (“paywalled”) journals that will make individual articles openly accessible for a charge.  One of the original hopes of the Open Access movement was that openness would reach a tipping point at which libraries could begin cancelling subscriptions but so far there is no real evidence that this is likely to happen in the near future and universities are not receiving any immediate financial benefit, although scholarship as a whole is richer and members of the public without access to university library resources are now able to access a significant proportion of published research.

The other group who bear a substantial  burden in funding university education are the students and they receive almost no immediate benefit from the money going to OA publishing, while on the other hand they are often required to spend large sums on the purchase of textbooks (or go without as many do) just to follow their courses. The open textbook movement has been around for a number of years and has been written about on LOL before. It has real potential to make  university education more affordable, as well as making a valuable contribution to “public education”, but progress is slow and the number of titles available too small to make it a viable option for most courses. A 2016 report by Elaine Allen and Jeff Seaman, Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-16, identified a number of barriers  to academics selecting open textbooks with availability issues being the most important-

  • Not enough resources for my subject (49%)
  • Too hard to find what I need (48%)
  • No comprehensive catalog of resources (45%)

Interestingly concerns around quality (28%) and up-to-dateness (17%) were less frequent which suggests that there is no insuperable academic barrier to open textbook use, although high quality would be an important factor for universities wishing to provide excellent education.

Looking at motivating factors for university staff using open textbooks in their courses, “Cost to the student” was the highest (94%) followed by “Comprehensive content and activities” (81%) which is effectively a quality measure.

Early adopters and author/creators are critical to the success of the open textbook movement and Massey staff have been involved in at least one venture. Erika Pearson of Communications, Journalism and Marketing and  Sy Taffel of English and Media Studies were involved in 2014 project ‘texthacking’ a media studies textbook for students in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific which you can read about here. However, I haven’t been able to find any other local examples and I’m not aware if open textbooks are being used in any Massey courses, so it seems we are still a long way from achieving critical mass both locally and internationally, and at least one publisher (Flat World) has had to move from open and free to just cheap. This is a real pity because open textbooks have the potential to make a real difference.

A few observations on why progress is so slow –

  • The present academic reward system doesn’t promote the writing of textbooks so the financial incentive for authors remains the strongest motive
  • While open access journal publishing has a clear financial model through author charges which are in turn funded out of research budgets, no similar model exists for open textbooks
  • Students lack a strong voice at the table and textbooks are just another burden that they have to bear or try to dodge
  • Textbooks are a big money earner for publishers and they are good at keeping lecturers and their students tied in with additional online materials and heavy promotion

On the other hand universities and academic communities have recognised the need to make their research more publicly relevant through initiatives like The Conversation, as well as their support for open access publishing, so they might see the open textbook as a means of promoting public education in these intellectually troubled times. Just a thought.

Bruce White

Copyright and Open Access Advisor


One response to “Are open textbooks still on the way? And when will they arrive?”

  1. alcurnow says:

    Great post, Bruce. This is an area that needs more attention.

    You said ‘Students lack a strong voice at the table and textbooks are just another burden that they have to bear or try to dodge.’

    This is exactly the sentiment that motivated us to undertake a small study at Otago – potentially a pilot for a much larger study – to ask students about what they do when a course has a ‘required textbook.’ Stand-out results:

    • more than 1/3 of 1st year students spent over $500 on textbooks
    • 3/4 of students rely very heavily on materials provided by the lecturer (via Blackboard/Moodle)
    • 1/2 of students seek alternative online resources to supplement what the lecturer has prescribed or provided
    • 1/2 of students felt that lack of access to required materials (e.g. either bec it was too expensive or not enough copies in the library at peak times)
    • students seldom factor the cost of books into course selection (often bec the info isn’t available or easy to find)
    • students often feel that textbooks reflect very poor value, both academically (e.g. hardly used) and financially

    For those interested you can read our report, see our questions, sift through the data and even take a demo version of the survey tool (all openly licensed for reuse of course) on our Figshare project page:

    Richard White
    Copyright Advisor
    Otago University

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