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Editor's Note

Open Textbooks Aim to Cut College Costs

University Business, Sep 2008

WHAT WOULD YOU PAY FOR A COPY OF Introduction to Economic Analysis by R. Preston McAfee? $100? $150? How about nothing? Not to sound too much like a late night infomercial, but that’s the price for the book by McAfee, who teaches at the California Institute of Technology. He is one of many authors who have turned to the “open textbook” licensing model offered by groups such as Creative Commons and GNU.

Open textbooks are available online for free. Students and faculty can read them as digital documents or print the parts they need. Some books also have a print on demand feature, where a professionally bound copy of the book can be purchased for a fraction of the price of a commercial textbook. A printed copy of McAfee’s book, for example, sells for $11.10 plus shipping. A portion of that cost goes to the authors but, for the most part, making money isn’t their objective.

A growing list of authors choose to publish under a license that allows others to build on their work.

“[Publishers] issue new editions frequently to kill off the used book market, and the rapidity of new editions contributes to errors and bloat,” writes McAfee. “Moreover, textbooks have gotten dumb and dumber as publishers seek to satisfy the student who prefers to learn nothing. Many have gotten so dumb (‘simplified’) so as to be simply incorrect. And they want $100 for this schlock?”

This is an idea whose time has come. Students and faculty have complained for years that publishers have sought to increase their profits by issuing superficially revised editions of texts, or packaging them with supplemental materials, such as CDs and DVDs, that often go unused.

Giving instructors the ability to use low-cost or no cost alternative texts, or to be able to use portions of texts to build their own course packs, without fear of copyright violations, just makes sense. A growing list of authors choose to publish their work through Creative Commons (, under a license that allows—and encourages—others to build on the work, while maintaining credit and permissions designated by the original author. Revisions and updates can be made in this way—the same as with commercial texts, but without the costs associated with releasing a revised edition.

According to the Government Accountability Office, textbook and supply prices account for about a quarter of tuition and fee costs at four-year public schools, and nearly three times that at community colleges. A group called Make Textbooks Affordable ( has been pressuring Congress to enact legislation to curb excessive prices as part of the College Opportunity and Affordability Act of 2008 (HR 4317). At this writing, the bill awaits President Bush’s signature.

Still, with more open textbooks becoming available, a growing number of instructors have joined the chorus of those who would avoid dealing with publishers at all. Make Textbooks Affordable lists more than 1,230 college instructors who have pledged to give preference to low or no-cost open textbooks over commercial textbooks if they best fit the needs of a class. That’s just a drop in the bucket, but it could be the beginning of a wave for open source textbooks.

It’s that time again. EduComm 2009 is accepting speaker proposals for the sixth annual conference, which will take place in the Orlando Convention Center, June 17-19. If you are interested in joining our growing roster of speakers, visit to access the new online speaker proposal form.


Write to Tim Goral at