New open-source strategy would drop textbook costs to $0

However, the textbook publishing industry is “not opposed” to open-source textbooks and is even partnering with some providers, said David Anderson, executive director of higher education at the Association of American Publishers. But he said traditional textbooks can cost up to a few million dollars to produce, and he is skeptical that such an effort can be re-created on a large scale for a product distributed for free.

Anderson said traditional textbooks are usually written by several academics and are peer-reviewed to ensure they are accurate, free of typos and well-sourced. “When you’re looking at open-source textbooks, that may or may not be the case,” he said.

Anderson said the industry has already developed cheaper alternatives to the hardcover, full-color textbook: three-ring-binder editions, black-and-white editions or options for students to buy individual chapters electronically. He pointed to CourseSmart, a company offering a $200 package deal that enables students to rent electronic versions of six textbooks.

Student advocates for open-source textbooks point to a study released in January by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a nonprofit advocacy organization. About 65 percent of the 2,000 college students the group surveyed across the country said they opted not to buy a textbook because of the cost, and nearly all of those students were concerned it would affect their grade in the course.

Roberts said the Introduction to Psychology open-source textbook he created is now in use by about 700 students each semester. The students he’s surveyed are generally pleased with the experience, he said, with the exception of a few who prefer to have a printed textbook to write in.

There are other benefits to open-source textbooks, he said. “Right now, if a study comes out, it can take a year to show up in a textbook. We can update it overnight.”

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