The Challenge of Open Access Textbooks

This blog post was written by Lara Speicher, Publishing Manager, UCL Press

Among the many proposals UCL Press receives it is often noted how few of them are for textbooks. When we discuss this with our academic colleagues the most frequent reasons given for this are that an author can potentially receive a substantial amount in royalties if they publish a textbook with a commercial publisher, that textbooks are very time-consuming to write and compile, and that textbooks don’t count in the REF. It is understandable that an author would not find it a very attractive proposition to write an unremunerated textbook and that other priorities such as monograph writing, which will directly contribute to an author’s career, or a generous offer from a commercial publisher, will take win the day.

However, from an HEI’s and a student’s point of view this is a very unsatisfactory situation. Textbooks are very expensive for students to buy on top of their fees and living expenses, and buying large numbers of print textbooks is increasingly challenging for squeezed library budgets. And now these issues are starting to bite as textbook sales are in decline. Last autumn, three major textbook publishers, Pearson, Wiley and Barnes & Noble Education, all reported sharp falls in textbook sales in the US, attributed to students’ greater awareness of textbook rentals and ebooks, students buying textbooks when needed rather than at the beginning of the year, and campus bookstores keeping their stock tight due to a bad year of returns (unsold books being returned to the publisher) in 2015 (Financial Times, 2016). Unsurprising that students are turning to other options when textbook prices are reported to have risen by more than 800 percent in the last three decades (University Business, 2014)

So what can institutions do about this? That is what the Jisc Institution as E-textbook Publisher project has been exploring during the last four years with four HEIs: University of Nottingham, University of the Highlands and Islands, Liverpool University and UCL. Each of them is publishing two textbooks under a variety of models – indeed, the project was keen to encourage experimentation with technology, delivery methods, licensing, pricing and business models. The project will report at the end of 2017, and each HEI will describe the processes they went through, the challenges they faced, and the solutions they found. They will also report on usage statistics, student and academic feedback, and whether it is sustainable for HEIs to produce their own textbooks. The key challenges that are immediately apparent are the staff resources and publishing expertise that would be needed in order to produce textbooks on any kind of scale comparable to commercial publishers, and the investment that would be required on the part of HEIs to pay authors and the production costs.

UCL Press is eager to develop its textbook publishing programme, to address the current situation and in order to fulfill one of its 2034 strategic goals to be a global leader in the integration of research and education, underpinning an inspirational student experience. The authors of the two textbooks produced by UCL Press in the Jisc Institution as E-Textbook Publisher programme, Key Concepts in Public Archaeology and Textbook of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, were both committed to open access from the outset, and they could see the benefits of the key texts for their courses being made available freely to their students and to a wider global audience. In addition to the obvious cost-savings for UCL’s students, and the advantages for the academics teaching the courses who can make tailored education material freely available to their students, the other key benefit includes the dissemination of UCL’s teaching to other courses worldwide, which has a positive reputational impact and could even help recruit students by making UCL’s courses better known. UCL Press will be making a new call for textbook proposals in May and we are planning to offer a fee of £1500 to up to 10 UCL authors. While this amount is small in comparison with the potential earnings an author might receive from a commercial publisher, we hope that it will provide a little extra incentive for those authors who are perhaps already interested in exploring more innovative and fair ways of providing textbooks.

Clearly it is going to take a major shift to overturn the current model entirely since textbook publishing is big business, requiring significant investment and generating significant profits. However, there are clear signs of change and innovative approaches underway. OpenStax, developed by Rice University in the US, is an innovative open access textbook platform, published in the form of ‘pages’ that can be compiled into different collections and components. SUNY Open Textbooks, developed by the State University of New York Libraries, launched in 2012 and has published 18 textbooks with several more forthcoming. This is very much a community project and while it offers publishing services for authors, and editorial support, it does not appear to offer remuneration, relying instead on educators who want to provide an alternative model for the greater good.

The Jisc Institution as E-textbook Publisher is kick-starting thinking and experimentation in the UK and the hope is that it will lead to fresh approaches and sustainable models for further development. The advent of TEF provides another incentive for HEIs to raise the topic of institutionally produced textbooks higher on the agenda.

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