Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Open source textbooks

The principle of Open Source Software (OSS) has been established for a long time. The Linux OS (or GNU/Linux, for the purists out there) made the idea of freely giving away software and source code respectable. Concerns about the quality of the software, and whether or not companies could make money from open source, have all been washed away over the years. OSS tends to be more stable, has bugs fixed faster, and evolves faster than commercial software. Also, companies have been making money from OSS for years: Red Hat being just one example.

In this pod cast transcript Steven Cherry from IEEE Spectrum talks with Richard Baraniuk of Rice University about Open Source Textbooks (OST). Baraniuk has founded the Connexions platform, a platform for developing open source textbooks.

I can think of several objections to the idea of OST, but I believe that, in common with OSS, these objections are not insurmountable problems:

Firstly, there is the issue of quality control. When an author submits a book proposal to a publisher, the publisher will send the outline and a sample chapter to reviewers. But, the reviewers tend to be people the author knows, as unlike anonymous peer review of journal articles, a textbook author can often nominate the reviewers of their proposal.

Secondly, there is the issue of formatting the book. If you use an authoring system like LaTeX, formatting a book isn't really that hard (certainly easier than formatting a book in Word). Publishers tend to only provide an author with a template, anyway.

Thirdly, advertising the book. This seems to vary fairly widely between different publishers, with some putting a lot of effort into it, and others doing much less. With the reach that the Internet provides people now, I don't see advertising as a large issue. If you have a blog, website, or networking profile (and I think that a serious academic should have all of these), you can advertise your book there. If you can afford it, you can buy some ads through Google or one of the other advertising services. It takes a bit of work, but not as much as writing the book in the first place.

Fourthly, producing the book. If you are going entirely for a soft-copy, open-source approach, that's not a problem: just whack the book up on a website, and let people download it. If you want to sell hard copies, then you can go with a publishing-on-demand (POD) service like lulu.com. Using POD has the advantage that you don't need to pay for inventory before you can start selling copies. That is, while most traditional publishers like to produce the hard copies themselves, they also like to print several thousand copies, and then sell them. With POD, copies are printed as they are sold. No inventory, so no big pile of books (money!) sitting in a warehouse where they might get sold later on. If the publisher doesn't decide to kill the book, or sell the lot off at a loss, or just pulp them.

Finally, money! Traditional publishers take a big chunk of the sale price of a book for themselves: around 90%, or more. Combined with the relatively small number of copies that most textbooks sell, an author isn't going to make a lot of money from the exercise (there are exceptions, but it's a pretty long tail: most textbook authors will make very little money, and just a few will make a lot). If you publish open-source, then there are other ways of making money from the book - advertising on the website you host it on, soliciting donations, and selling hard copies via POD services, which tend to give larger shares to the authors. For an early-career author like myself, the biggest problem I face isn't missing out on a royalty cheque, it's obscurity.

I've come to realise that, in common with the problems with academic journal publishers, textbook publishers really don't add that much value. Sure, there is the cachet associated with publishing with certain publishers, just as there is with publishing with certain journals, but is that enough of a reason to put up with their disadvantages?

An OST system like Connexions also solve most of the objections I listed above: material that is submitted to Connexions is subject to peer review, it is becoming well-established as a place to go to for OST, and they sell hard copies. I really do think that, just as open access journals are the future for publishing papers, open source textbooks are the future of textbooks, and that within a generation (certainly within my working lifetime) we will see traditional text book publishers diminish in importance.

Is Connexions to OST as Source Forge is to OSS? Would you spend money to buy a hard-copy of an OST textbook? Would you contribute money in other ways to support the work of an OST author? Would you assign an OST as a class textbook?