Are open textbooks the solution to high textbook costs?

Everybody knows that textbook prices have gotten way out of control.  Many freshman textbooks in biology, chemistry, math, and other subjects cost well over $200.   Especially at the introductory level where subject matter doesn’t change much and where the overall size of the market is large, there is only one possible explanation for a $200 textbook, and that is that the publisher knows the student has no choice but to buy it.

I commented on this problem 8 years ago, and nothing has really changed since then except that more people than ever are talking about the urgent need to fix this problem.  That’s a good thing, as far as it goes, but workable solutions must also be grounded in facts.

One of the more superficially appealing solutions advocated by many students, faculty, and policy makers is the adoption of open-source textbooks that can be freely downloaded and used by anyone.  To the extent that such textbooks exist (they do!) and are of sufficiently high quality to be regarded as usable by instructors (some are!), this is indeed the best imaginable outcome.

But rather few such textbooks have been written so far, and some that I have seen are not particularly attractive for various reasons.  Proponents of open textbooks often gloss over the not-insignificant challenge of ensuring that many more get written in the numerous subject areas where they’re still badly needed and of enforcing some minimum standards of quality, since often no editor or publisher is involved.

The statistics to date suggest that at most one per several thousand people qualified to teach a particular subject also has both the free time and the exceptional idealism required to turn out a high-quality textbook without any thought of compensation.  That ratio is okay as long as one is concerned with a course subject, such as freshman math or physics, in which there are, in fact, several thousand qualified instructors.   But if we shift our attention to more specialized upper-division subjects, such as partial differential equations or complex analysis, the pool of qualified authors becomes far smaller, and the odds become quite poor indeed that even one of them will ever volunteer to commit the year or more required to write a good textbook for free.

In short, it seems clear that if you really want an adequate supply of open textbooks, you have to figure out how to give talented authors more than token incentives to write them.  First, who should provide that incentive?  And is a one-time cash payment sufficient?  If so, how much should it be?   Could there be temporary relief from other responsibilities in the form of a special sabbatical? How will the prospective author(s) be identified and recruited who will turn out not just a book satisfying the the letter of a contract but one that is good enough to be widely adopted on some basis other than its low cost alone?

It is time for a sober and realistic examination of these questions.

Oh, and one more thing: open textbooks are only free until you print them on your inkjet printer and pay $20-$80 for the expendables, depending on page count, use of color, etc.  A truly attractive model for open textbooks would provide a way for those who want a bound hardcopy to pay something closer to the volume printing cost that commercial publishers enjoy.  This would cut the cost to below $10 in most cases.

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