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Open Textbooks: Why Open Textbooks

Crisis of Textbook Costs

Textbooks cost students on average $1200 a year. The cost of textbooks is rising more than four times faster than inflation.

Academic Impact

Textbooks have become so expensive that 65% of students report having foregone purchasing the textbook; 94% of those say that they suffered academically because of it. 

Faculty routinely report that even for students who choose to get the textbook, they often have to wait until their financial aid comes in, which means that they do not have the textbook for the crucial first module or two of the course. 

Economic Impact

The cost of textbooks is one contributor to the problem of unaffordable higher education. The cost of higher education in the United States is becoming a barrier to degree completion and a drag on graduates who have large student loans to pay off. 

Open Textbooks as a Solution

Proposed solutions to the textbook cost crisis have included:

Textbook Rentals

Textbook rentals, which are increasingly easy to find on sites like as well as in college bookstores, typically offer a $110 textbook for around $30. The price depends on the duration of the rental. There are disadvantages, however:

  • Students cannot mark up their rented textbooks.
  • Students cannot make some money back by reselling rented textbooks.
  • Students cannot retain rented textbooks for future courses or personal reference.


Electronic textbooks have been promoted by many legislators as part of a solution to the crisis of high cost textbooks. They have the advantage of reducing paper consumption and not being heavy and cumbersome to carry around. Also, like rented textbooks, they are much cheaper than traditional model. However, they have downsides:

  • Students cannot make some money back by reselling e-textbooks.
  • Students cannot retain electronic textbooks for future courses or personal reference.
  • Students prefer to read print textbooks; electronic texts cause eyestrain and promote skimming.
  • Students prefer to mark up (highlight and take notes) print textbooks; the markup features of e-textbooks are still fairly primitive.

Open Textbooks

Both textbook rentals and e-textbooks work within the traditional for-profit textbook publishing model. Open Textbooks do not.

Open Textbooks are free as in no cost.

Open Textbooks are also free as in no restrictions on copying, distributing, or (usually) making derivative works. They are Open Educational Resources - Creative Commons licensed works whose copyright owners permit unlimited copying and distribution, at least for noncommercial purposes. Some Open Textbooks may permit commercial uses as well, and many Open Textbooks also permit the creation of derivative works (revisions, adaptations, remixes, mash-ups, etc.) 

Open Textbooks are digital resources, however there are companies and organizations that sell low-cost print versions of them for students who prefer print. 

Because Open Textbooks operate outside the traditional publishing model, they do not always fit in with our preconceived notions of what a book is. They often contain a great deal of integrated multimedia. They are frequently created with the intention that the faculty who adopt them should also adapt and customize them

Most important, Open Textbooks may or may not have gone through editing and peer review like a conventional textbook. The process of adopting a textbook has always required faculty evaluation, but this is even more important with Open Textbooks. 

Open Textbooks share some weaknesses with e-textbooks. Students may find the digital format uncomfortable, inconvenient, or unusable. However, there are no copyright restrictions preventing the printing of an Open Textbook. Additionally, there are often print options for low cost. Also, there is no market for reselling Open Textbooks; on the other hand, since they are free to begin with, students do not need to resell last term's books in order to buy the ones for next term.

There are some unique weaknesses of Open Textbooks, but they are not inherent weaknesses. They are just areas where our current practices have not caught up: 

  • Faculty are free to customize and remix as needed... but they are practically obligated to do so. 
  • Creating and sharing that content is not currently rewarded in our compensation, tenure and promotion system to even close to the same extent publishing traditional textbooks and scholarly works is rewarded. 

But there are two overwhelming strengths:

Your Librarians

Sarah Morehouse's picture
Sarah Morehouse

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