Professor: Open-source textbooks will save students money

In this photo, UConn professor Edward Neth is pictured in his office. Neth said he will adapt a free open-source chemistry textbook for introductory chemistry courses in Fall 2016. (Mei Buzzell/The Daily Campus)

Students spend hundreds of dollars on textbooks every semester, but a push toward open-source has offered universities free electronic alternatives to make higher education more affordable.

With over $21,000 in funding from the Undergraduate Student Government, UConn professor Edward Neth will adapt a free open-source chemistry textbook for introductory chemistry courses in Fall 2016, Neth said. 

Last fall USG passed legislation calling for the university to set-up an open-source textbook committee chaired by Vice Provost for Libraries Martha Bedard. This semester, the faculty-run UConn Senate passed a resolution in support of the open-source textbook initiative. 

“I think open source is great because it takes the pressure off of students who are pressured financially,” third-semester digital media and design major Evan Field said. “We shouldn’t be paying this much for textbooks when we’re already paying for college.” 

Neth plans to adapt an open-source textbook from OpenStax College, a website run by Rice University that offers free open-source, peer-reviewed textbooks for introductory courses like physics, sociology and chemistry, USG External Affiars chair Daniel Byrd said. 

OpenStax College offered to publish Neth’s textbook for free, but the revision process will cost over $21,000, which would be covered by USG, Byrd said. 

“If just Neth’s class used the open-source textbook over the next five years, students would save $400,000. For a $21,000 investment, we’re getting a big return,” Byrd said. 

While open-source textbooks don’t have the graphics and figures associated with standard textbooks, ecology and evolutionary biology professor Chris Simon said that commercial publishers often change graphics or rearrange topics in newer editions then charge unreasonably high prices. 

“The (open-source) textbook is as good as anything else out there and that was the tipping point,” Neth said. “I think open access materials will be able to change more quickly than commercial textbooks.” 

USG is working on getting professors to use open-source textbooks that already exist and funding others for their time in writing open-source textbooks that don’t yet exist, Byrd said. 

The problem, Neth said, is that there haven’t been quality open source materials available for very long. OpenStax College’s chemistry textbook only became available in March. 

OpenStax is planning to publish an open-source calculus textbook that could be used in introductory calculus courses here at UConn, Neth said. 

“USG does a lot of giveaways where we give out water bottles, t-shirts and other things and students really appreciate it,” Byrd said. “I don’t see this as anything different. I think that students would also appreciate getting free textbooks.”

Even though open-source textbooks have the potential to save students money, Neth said it doesn’t mean students won’t have to spend any money on course materials.

Although the textbook would be free under open licenses, introductory classes like chemistry still need online resources to gauge student learning and to supplement textbook information, Neth said. Ultimately, students would have to pay for these services. 

“I have a feeling that textbook publishers will find ways to make up for what they will lose,” Neth said. “But the window is closing.” 

“Commercial textbooks are outdated,” UConn student Anurag Ojha said. “Our generation uses media and technology that enable us to easily access information online.“


Diler Haji is a campus correspondent for The Daily Campus.