Why should institutions consider publishing open access textbooks

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

Earlier this year, the education publisher Pearson reported a 30% decline in revenue in the fourth quarter, and Peter J. Cohen, president of McGraw-Hill Education’s U.S. education group, said in an interview. “We and the rest of the industry are recognizing that the days of what had been a high-priced textbook is over.” Because of the typical high prices of textbooks, students have increasingly been turning to rental options or the used textbook market, and are able to find more and more resources online. In response, some commercial publishers are adapting their models to provide all-inclusive access options that offer students direct access to textbooks at a far lower price, and some universities report success with such initiatives.

Another interesting response to this situation in the last few years has been the increase in the US of universities publishing their own open access textbooks for provision to their own students and beyond. Among them are initiatives such as Rice University’s Open Stax, the Open Textbook Library and Open SUNY (State University New York) Textbooks. The Open Textbook Library, a growing catalogue of open access textbooks from a wide range of university publishers, quotes from a report from the American College Board that students typically face costs of $1200 for textbooks, on top of their college fees and living expenses, and as a result many are not buying textbooks, and are missing courses or dropping out altogether.

So, will similar developments in open textbook publishing start to emerge in the UK? Two particular initiatives are testing the model: the Jisc Institution as E-textbook Publisher project that this blog is part of and which is due to present its final outputs in summer 2018, and more recently, the UK Open Textbook project has been launched to research the viability of introducing open textbooks in the UK higher education system. It asks key research questions about why it is the US in particular that has developed this model and whether this is about the particular context, such as the relative cost of textbooks, that means funding and interest are higher there. The UK Open Textbook project will research how the UK context differs from the US and what the methods for uptake are that might be transferrable.

Much of this activity in the US has emerged from library activity rather than university’s own presses. This is driven by the increasing role libraries are playing in the delivery of scholarly content, using their budgets to provide resources not just acquire and deliver them. This has resulted in a significant movement in the US and the establishment of such organisations as the Library Publishing Coalition to support and encourage library publishing activity.

As data emerges about usage by students and lecturers of the books published in the Jisc Institution as Etextbook Publisher project, it is hoped that such evidence will kickstart wider interest in the model as a way that institutions can directly contribute to an improved student experience. And with greater information also emerging from the UK Open Textbooks project about what is involved for institutions to publish their own textbooks in terms of cost, skills and resource, the next couple of years could see great strides being made in this area.

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