Open, Free, and Student Friendly Books

Yesterday I was in a great meeting where the topic of open educational resources came up. This past year, I transitioned my two introductory level courses to completely open textbooks. This was not a very challenging task, in part, because intro level courses tend to have the greatest range of open teaching materials available for them. 

My mid-level class, a required course for history majors and minors, has one non-open access, non-free book required: Kate Turabian’s famous A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations. This book is now in its 9th edition, but I’m willing to allow students to use earlier additions provided that they have access to the most recent one (at the library, online, or from a friend). Since our department leans a bit on this book in subsequent classes, we like to students to have a copy of their own. It is sufficiently ubiquitous that it is possible to get a copy of the most recent addition of the book for $5-$7 (new copies are only $15) and this seems like a fair price for a book used across multiple classes.

One of the challenges that I’m facing as a publisher, a scholar, and a teacher is the need balance the existence of a sustainable system that produces high quality academic material, on the one hand, and to control costs for students, libraries, and my fellow scholars, on the other. As an open access publisher inching toward sustainability, for example, I rely on a certain percentage of people choosing to buy physical copies of my books even though they can download them for free. The various professional societies with which I’m affiliated likewise rely on the sales of books and journal subscriptions (as well as membership dues and other revenue streams) to support their efforts to publish high-quality, specialized scholarship. It is clear that the pressure to produce open access scholarship runs the risk of eroding these revenue streams and cutting into their ability to support the kind of low margin, high cost professional scholarship that fields need to continue to grow and thrive. All of this is compounded by declining or stagnant library budgets, unscrupulous behavior by commercial publishers, growing costs of maintaining research collections, and reluctance to support publishing and university presses as part of an institution’s mission.   

This should not be read as a critique of open access scholarship, but as a reminder that academic and scholarly publishing exist within a complex ecosystem of pressures, resources, and opportunities.

To return, then, to open access, free, and student friendly books, I’ve started to think a bit more critically how the push for open educational resources fits into this larger ecosystem. Should we consider student book purchases as a way to support scholarly publishing in general? 

On the one hand, we have to recognize that the cost of going to college has increased and this has created a significant burden on college students. On the other hand, it feels like there is a continuum that already exists between open educational resources that are no costs to students or institutions and expensive textbooks. For example, most universities have libraries with subscriptions that provide students with access to content at no additional costs to students. This content, of course, is generally not free or open, but provided as part of a student’s tuition. Free, but not open content, can be wonderful, but it is limited by the stipulations of subscriptions and access permissions.

In this context, such free content is not radically different from assigning low cost books for a class inasmuch as they form part of an uneven landscape in higher education where certain students, typically from more affluent universities, have greater access to high-quality educational and research material than others. Conversely, the uneven quality of open access material, especially designed for specialized, upper level classes, limits the opportunities for less affluent students at less affluent institutions.

This is a rambling meditation, but my larger point is that, first, we do need to recognize that open educational resources do work to level the playing field between institutions and students, but only if they are at least as high a quality as free or low cost options. Free or low cost options tend to cover less even ground with more affluent institutions have a greater access to free content (via subscriptions or other arrangements with presses) than less affluent ones.

The potential of low cost options is less clear. It would be interesting to know what students who have already invested in the costs of higher education, which are burdensome to be sure, are willing to spend to get high(er) quality material for a class. This assumes, of course, that a low cost option exists for material that is higher quality than an open alternative, and this suggests that the material is more specialized and would be likely to appear in an upper level course. Developing offerings that are low cost, template driven, and appealing (and low risk) enough to see widespread adoptions would also generate a revenue stream that, say, an academic society could use to produce more similar low cost content.

(As an aside, I love models that set a clear financial goal for a publication which once reached makes the book open access.)

Such models are not without problems, of course, and it is completely appropriate to look askance at a funding scheme that looks to student costs as a revenue stream. At the same time, there is always a balance between the reality that high quality scholarship costs money and the need to find fair and equitable ways to preserve student opportunities. 

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