Professor John Erdman says he is fed up with the exorbitant costs of textbooks being pushed by the publishing companies. Publishers are keeping prices high, he said, while doing less work on the publishing process than they have in the past. This is why in 2006, he self-published a free, open mathematics textbook of his own.
Professor John Erdman says he is fed up with the exorbitant costs of textbooks being pushed by the publishing companies.
Publishers are keeping prices high, he said, while doing less work on the publishing process than they have in the past.
This is why in 2006, he self-published a free, open mathematics textbook of his own.
“I’m pretty grumpy about textbook analysis publishers,” he said.
On April 15, 2008, 1,000 professors from 300 schools released a statement declaring their collective dissatisfaction with the textbook publishing industry, and expressing a large amount of support for affordable alternatives such as open textbooks.
Open, or “open source,” textbooks can mean different things to different people, but at its core, open textbooks commonly refer to free digital textbooks accessible to everyone, not just students. Students, or others, can then print them at home or view them online.
Now totaling 1,195 names, the American Federation of Teachers Higher Education Program and Policy Council-sponsored statement, has two signatures from PSU faculty. One of those signatures was Erdman’s, and the other belongs to PSU professor Talya Bauer, another who is working on an open source textbook.
Since the statement was published it has been making the rounds to e-mail inboxes around the country, urging fellow educators to sign the statement and jump aboard the open source bandwagon.
Dr. Larry Sanger, co-founder of Wikipedia, also released a public appeal to philanthropists to help support and spread the use of quality open source textbooks. In a May 24 open letter on his Web site, he encourages philanthropists to “let children reap the rewards of your generosity forever.”
Erdman, an associate professor of mathematics and statistics, currently has two open source textbooks online and available free of charge at his page within the PSU Mathematics Department Web site.
For Erdman, there is dissatisfaction with the mainstream textbook publishing industry.
He says that 30 to 40 years ago, textbook publishers were a valuable asset to help with mathematical typesetting and text review. Now however, he said, the publishing companies expect textbook manuscripts to be more or less completed before they will handle them.
“There’s no added value from the publishers anymore,” he said.
Similarly, Bauer is writing an open textbook for publication through Flat World Knowledge, a New York-based startup set to begin offering open texts in January 2009.
The business administration professor, whose upcoming open textbook will explore organizational behavior, favors Flat World’s business model over that of traditional publishers, and said it is the best of both worlds.
Flat World receives its books from experts, reviewing and developing them using the same methods as standard textbook publishers. However, once the book is finished, Flat World says they then offer the entirety of the textbook content online for free.
Eric Frank, founder of Flat World, said the company plans to make its money off the books by offering ordering choices to students. While the content is ultimately free, users can choose to purchase black and white, soft-cover copies for a small price, as well as full-color editions or downloadable audio versions.
Students and professors will also have the option, he said, to purchase extra supplements for the texts, such as audio flashcards or study aids.
Frank said the new business model would ultimately lead to more money from sales making its way back to the authors, since the authors will receive a cut from each purchased copy from Flat World.
With traditional textbooks, authors receive a portion of the sale from the newly printed books. The profits from the resale of used textbooks generally go entirely to the booksellers.
Ken Brown, CEO of the Portland State Bookstore, said the flip side to the argument for using more open textbooks is that complete digitalization of textbooks could lead to increased costs for students–if they have to pay for them.
He said that as current prices stand, a digital book purchased will ultimately cost more for a student on average than the price of a used textbook bought and sold back to the bookstore at the end of the term.
Brown said open-source textbook use is still too much on the fringe to be able to fully size up the implications of the impact on the textbook market.
“Be careful what you wish for,” he said.