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Opinion: Textbooks should be free

The solution to the price gouging problem is to go open-source
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I’ve come to the realization that I will not be able to afford more than a couple of my textbooks for the remainder of my graduate studies. 

It is not uncommon to come across books that cost on the order of several hundred dollars. For example, the Handbook of Atomization and Sprays, edited by U of T Professor Nasser Ashgriz, is listed at over $300 for a paperback copy, and $500 for a hardcover version. 

It is well known that the rate of increase in postsecondary textbook prices has been surpassing that of our tuition fees for some time. For many students, it is becoming infeasible to purchase all the books required for their courses. However, it is difficult to understand why the rate of price increases must be so high. 

A typical first assumption is that textbook companies are simply trying to exploit students, knowing that, in many cases, they’ll have no choice but to buy new books every year. But upon further research, it becomes clear that a variety of economic factors play a major part in raising the final price of textbooks. 

Nonetheless, these high prices can hinder a student’s educational experience, especially when textbooks are required for coursework. Any potential solutions to this problem have to account for the necessity of course books while bypassing their cost constraints.

The problem, beyond greed

According to Professor Christopher Ragan of McGill University, textbook prices cannot be simply explained through a profit motive, as textbook companies are generally not considered profitable because of the risk it takes to publish them. He provides three alternative explanations: the cost of the extensive review process, which can involve dozens of professors that all require compensation for their services; the quality of the textbooks, including paper, figure, and ink quality; and competition between publishers. 

Competition often leads companies to publish materials to supplement textbooks, such as instructors’ manuals and online content, in an attempt to fulfill the needs of faculty and students. These materials all require additional costs. This point is substantiated in a 2006 report published by the Education Resources Information Center, which notes that it is difficult to compare textbook prices from different periods of time as more and more content is being bundled with the books. 

On the other hand, prices of textbooks in e-book format continue to soar, especially in the COVID-19 era, as reported by The Guardian — even though the cost of printing is eliminated. Although Ragan also brought up peer review — the process in which an academic work is evaluated by scholars in the field of interest — as a possible cost, it is now performed in most journals by volunteers. So why should compensation of reviewers be a factor in the price of textbooks today?

Optional is not an option

The latest textbooks are often required in courses where students are expected to complete large sets of practice problems. Professors reason that students should be expected to purchase their textbook, since they’ll certainly be referring to its content repeatedly to complete their assignments. This reasoning leaves students befuddled, as most of this content could be reproduced by the professor and shared with the students, as is commonly done in graduate courses where there is usually more emphasis on theoretical fundamentals rather than high rates of repetition and practice. 

Professors may also require that students get the latest edition of these books in order to ensure that all students are using the same source, which is frustrating for students who may be able to get access to older versions at lower prices. Students who cannot bear to pay exorbitant prices for the latest editions may seek more desperate measures to get access to textbook content. Although some lucky students might be able to ask their older siblings for copies, if those siblings recently attended postsecondary schools and taken similar introductory courses, most will end up scouring the internet for digital copies of the text. 

Consequences of inaccessible textbooks

These digital copies can be found on so-called shadow libraries — online databases for content that would normally be concealed by paywalls and copyright controls. Sci-Hub is a well-known example of a shadow library for academic literature and was started so that journal articles could be accessed by students whose institutions could not get access to major publishers’ expensive subscriptions. 

Sci-Hub contains nearly 80 per cent of all published proceedings and journal articles, and around 15 per cent of all book chapters. It also allows access to even more textbooks because of its connection to Library Genesis, another shadow library with an archive of over half a million books and articles. According to a recent study that looked at the rate of citation of papers downloaded through Sci-Hub, the library is popular enough that papers that can be found through it are almost twice as likely to be cited. 

These databases have caused controversies regarding copyright infringement, and Sci-Hub has been successfully sued by the publishing giant Elsevier. However, pirate sites like these will remain alive and well as long as paywalls cannot be unlocked by students. 

Free as in freedom

Knowing that peer review is mostly done without compensation, that authors of textbooks do not normally collect large royalties, and that digital publication can eliminate the costs of physical printing, an open-source library is an obvious solution. 

An open-source book is one that is available over an open-source license, meaning that it can be freely used, modified, or shared. Examples of open-source libraries are eCampusOntario’s Open Library, BCcampus’ online open textbook collection, and the University of Minnesota’s Open Textbook Library.

Such systems would eliminate the cost of production and procurement for faculty and students, respectively, so that course requirements from the former are maintained while the educational experiences of the latter are not hindered. By advocating for the widespread adoption of open-source textbooks in universities, we’d be eliminating the need for students to scour the internet to find their educational materials, and we’d keep them from facing a terrifying bill at the bookstore.