Opinion

opinion | Ben Schreckinger

Can textbook costs be controlled?

Universities across the country have begun experimenting with open textbooks

Kyle T. Webster for the Boston Globe

Judging by the stories I hear from my parents’ friends, college students in the 1970s managed to spend more money on beer than on books. For today’s college students to pull off a feat like that, they’d need deep pockets and a taste for expensive beer.

That’s because the cost of college textbooks is out of control. Between 2002 and 2012, their prices rose by 82 percent, according to the Government Accountability Office. (Prices are up 812 percent since 1978, more than three times the rise in the consumer price index). Today, college students pay more than $1,200 on average for books and supplies every year. It’s piling an outrageous financial burden onto an educational process that’s already burying my generation in debt.

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Luckily, there’s a fantastic solution to this problem: open textbooks. These peer-reviewed e-books are just as good as traditional textbooks, but they’ve got one big difference — instead of coming with a triple-digit price tag, they’re free. Drawn by their promise, universities across the country have begun experimenting with open textbooks. A consortium of 29 institutions, including Carnegie Mellon and Rice University, operate one online repository. A group including the University of Minnesota, Purdue, and Oregon State maintains another. A Boston-based startup called Boundless assembles textbooks using open source materials, and it launched a platform in August that allows others to publish their own open textbooks.

Still, open textbooks remain a niche product when they should be the default in undergraduate (and high school and middle school) courses nationwide.

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In November, Democratic senators Al Franken of Minnesota and Dick Durbin of Illinois tried to speed up their adoption by introducing a bill that would fund open textbook pilot programs on campuses across the country. Predictably, this promising idea has gone nowhere in Congress.

But no matter — universities don’t need the federal government to kick-start an idea that’s long overdue. They already employ all the professors, the people who could be creating and implementing open textbooks en masse if given a nudge in the right direction. Instead, most schools are pushing their professors to waste energy on pursuing research that is useless or worse.

First, there’s the research that people have no use for. We have a study to tell us that sword swallowing can be risky (“sore throats are common”), and one to tell us that rats prefer Beethoven to Miles Davis (until you give them cocaine). It only took five researchers to publish a model last year to help us understand just how much skiers enjoy skiing, or to put it in plain English: “The expanded model in a sporting context further evidences the functional roles of the orientations to happiness by results consistent with extant literature of positive psychology.”

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Then, there’s the epidemic of peer-reviewed research that’s fraudulent, error-ridden, or otherwise misleading and therefore fails the fundamental scientific test of reproducibility.

Last March, in just one example, scientists at the Cambridge-based ALS Therapy Development Institute published an article in the journal Nature detailing how they couldn’t replicate the results from any of eight previous studies that claimed to find promising ALS treatments in mice and that had led to failed — and costly — clinical trials.

The finding throws cold water on the recent enthusiasm for funding ALS research, but it’s an issue that transcends any one disease. In 2012, the biopharmaceutical firm Amgen revealed that the company’s labs had been unable to reproduce about 90 percent of landmark cancer studies published over the previous decade.

Why is this happening? It’s complicated, but a big part of the problem is that publication credit is the coin of the academic realm. Professors have to get their names on articles in academic journals to receive tenure and secure their professional stature. But not all of these academics have the ideas or the resources to pursue worthwhile research.

Universities have a chance to kill two birds with one stone here. By explicitly considering work on peer-reviewed open textbooks as an alternative to some part of the requirement for publishing new research, tenure committees can jump-start the open textbook movement. Academics with promising research to pursue will continue to do so, but those who are grasping at straws for the sake of finding something, anything, to publish, will have a better option.

Colleges can’t expect to maintain current levels of enrollment at the current cost of higher education, and every dollar that doesn’t come off the price of textbooks will put downward pressure on tuition. That pressure will only grow more acute as low-cost online models go mainstream. To compete, traditional institutions will have no choice but adopt open textbooks — unless, of course, they plan to offer free, open-source beer.

Ben Schreckinger is a journalist living in Boston. Follow him on Twitter @SchreckReports.
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