As explained in an article presented in the Journal of Scholarly Publishing, the term “open access” textbooks does not necessarily imply “free” textbooks. While the cost of accessing a digital version of a textbook may not be necessarily passed on to a student, creating such a textbook, as well as bringing it to the classroom, has costs that may impede the rapid and wide-spread dissemination of these learning tools. Moreover, background knowledge of open access materials in mainstream academia still lags behind the potential of these educational resources.
Any college student will be able to attest to the high prices of post-secondary education textbooks. Overall, the rising price of textbooks outstrips the rate of inflation. Such costs can create a serious impediment to a student’s educational experience. A study of 14,221 students from Florida University reported that 23 percent of college students had at one time or another not registered for a particular class because of the high textbook costs. In addition, a reported 16.3 percent of students had failed a course due to not being able to afford a textbook.
That being said, college students can be very resourceful when it comes to buying textbooks. The overwhelming majority of surveyed students buy used textbooks, often times from sources other than the college bookstores—places notorious for charging full price for books. A reported 58 percent of students re-sell their textbooks, and surprisingly, 37 percent of students report not bothering to buy the text at all.
In their 2011 article An Experiment in Open-Access Textbook Publishing, authors Meredith Morriss-Babb and Susie Henderson noted that “The revolt against the ever-increasing costs of post-secondary texts has begun.” Some of this resistance has appeared on the level of state government. A reported 39 states have passed legislation to help students reduce the cost of their textbooks. Such laws include clauses that demand that faculty confirm that all textbooks will be used, that policies are implemented to address the needs of students that cannot afford textbooks, and that textbook lists are posted early enough to allow students a chance to comparison shop.
One front on the battle field for affordable college books is that of open access textbooks (referred to in some circles as “OA textbooks”). Truly open access textbooks offer many advantages over both traditional hard-copy volumes and digital textbooks that are offered through subscription. A true open access textbook can be accessed using any device (e.g. phone, personal laptop, or school computer) by an infinite number of people an infinite number of times. It can also be downloaded and stored as many times as the user wishes. Perhaps most importantly of all, open access textbooks can be modified by the user in such a way as to tailor the material to the educational needs and preferences of the class—not the other way around. For example, a professor seeking to teach a statistics course to a class of business majors would be able to custom-fit the material to address the needs and interests of the students.
So why aren’t there more people using open access textbooks? It is easy at first to jump to blaming antiquated university faculty. A study of Florida professors found that 52 percent of those interviewed were “not at all familiar” with open access textbooks, and only seven percent were “very familiar.”
But even if all professors were familiar with open access textbooks, there is reason to doubt that many would make the transition over from traditional tomes. Professors must select a class’s texts based first and foremost on the quality of their content and their relevance to the class. While in the last several years a number of excellent, peer-reviewed open-access resources have become available, faculty might regard purchasing a book from a trusted publisher to be the safer option. For this reason many report viewing open access textbooks as inferior to costly books of similar content.
The biggest impediment to the widespread adoption of open access textbooks is the costs associated with developing them. Although downloading the final product is free, developing a textbook takes considerable time and therefore considerable incentive. The most common forms of incentive are rewarding writers with release time, grants, or other monetary compensation. For example, the state of Ohio issued challenge grants to award up to $50,000 dollars for authors of open access textbooks. Academic institutions such as the State University of New York (SUNY) and the University of Florida have promoted open access textbook writing initiatives by providing seed money for textbook writers.
To date there are a number of reputable sources for open access textbooks such as Orange Grove Text Plus (OGT+) and Rice University’s Connexions. Such sources of information, while a boon to college students, have yet to prove their long-term financial sustainability and vitality within academic circles. Only time will tell.
By Sarah Takushi