Open-source textbooks, long considered a promising way to cut costs but still not widely used, could become more readily available and easily vetted as a University of Minnesota project expands.
Minnesota launched an online catalog of open-source books  last month and will pay its professors $500 each time they post an evaluation of one of those books. (Faculty members elsewhere are welcome to post their own reviews, but they won’t be compensated.) Minnesota professors who have already adopted open-source texts will also receive $500, with all of the money coming from donor funds.
The project is meant to address two faculty critiques of open-source texts: they are hard to locate and they are of indeterminate quality. By building up a peer-reviewed collection of textbooks, available to instructors anywhere, Minnesota officials hope to provide some of the same quality control that historically has come from publishers of traditional textbooks.
Students are eager to save money on course materials that often cost hundreds of dollars, and open-source textbooks -- generally available free online or cheaply in print -- accomplish that goal. But the free texts usually aren’t peer-reviewed and lack the supplemental materials provided by publishers.
The Internet is cluttered with hodgepodges of open-source material, some of it very good and some of it suspect. David Ernst, director of academic and information technology for Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development, got the idea for a one-stop, peer-reviewed, open-source shop when he met with the Student Public Interest Research Group, an organization that has criticized traditional textbooks as too expensive, at a conference last fall.
The goal of the Minnesota database is to curate texts in a way that empowers instead of frustrating professors. Material posted in the catalog must have an open license, be a complete book, have a print version and be adoptable outside the author’s institution. Minnesota isn’t creating any of the books, just assembling the best of what’s been published elsewhere. The catalog includes texts from Rice University, which launched a series of peer-reviewed open-source books  earlier this year.
About 90 books are now in Minnesota’s catalog, which has had thousands of visitors since its launch two weeks ago. Eleven Minnesota faculty members have offered to review books, other Big Ten universities have talked about getting involved and encouraging messages have poured in from as far away as Zimbabwe. Professors can browse open-source materials by subject area and read them online. The books are largely concentrated in entry-level math and science courses, but there are also titles in business communication, oceanography and other more specialized subjects.
“I became convinced this last year that we’re kind of at a tipping point right now,” Ernst said. “It’s a thing that is going to be around and it’s only growing right now.
“This just seems like such a win-win, maybe not for the publishing industry but everyone else. It’s a way to reduce costs for students but not really touch the resources of the institution.”
J. Bruce Hildebrand, executive director for higher education at the Association of American Publishers, said the success of open-source books will hinge on their quality.
“If it is effective and it is free, then one will assume that the faculty will adopt it,” Hildebrand said. “But if cutting costs means cutting corners, you don’t get the results that the student is investing time and money to get."
The Minnesota effort is taking off at a time that some other colleges are rethinking their approaches to textbooks. Lisa Macon, a professor at Florida’s Valencia College, said some faculty members don’t know that open-source materials exist or where to find them. Macon co-chaired a committee at Valencia that looked at several ways to save students money on books. She hopes to encourage open-source texts on her campus, and is optimistic that the Minnesota project can provide some guidance.
But Valencia, a community college, might also want open-source books for developmental courses that Minnesota wouldn’t offer. While no plans have been finalized, Macon said she could see Valencia developing a similar online catalog catering to classes commonly taught on two-year campuses.
Now, Macon said, it’s cumbersome for a faculty member to select an open-source book. “It’s very time-consuming to go through all of those sites, and very few of them are reviewed,” she said. “So it really falls upon the faculty member to look at them afresh each time.” That's frustrating, and she's hopeful efforts on her own campus and in Minnesota will help solve that problem and lead professors to high-quality, open-source books that save students money.
For his part, Hildebrand said open-source materials can be acceptable if they rise to the standards of the publishing industry. But “If you don’t get results,” he said, “then you’ve lost your major investment and your goal of getting a quality education.”