There is a quiet revolution brewing deep down in the tubes of the internet. Its vanguard is a meek crossbreed of programmers and academics — one could hardly imagine a more socially-awkward mutt. But they are armed with an idea that could reshape a multi-billion dollar industry, whose profits hinge on tearing money out of the pockets of college students. The overthrow of the senselessly expensive textbook is at hand. It’s time for open-source textbooks.
The textbook industry is tyrannical. Microeconomists would be hard pressed to design a more flawed market. Textbook publishers hold exclusive production and pricing control over their products. They market their books to professors, who pass on purchasing cost to students. Since most professors aren’t paid (and shouldn’t be paid) according to class enrollment, the externality of the professor’s decision is almost 100 percent of the book price. Professors make the choices. Students bear the cost. Publishers hold exclusive rights. No wonder “Linear Algebra and Its Applications” is several times the price of 250-page non-textbooks.
The situation is not all bad. To their credit, publishers have not raised textbook prices nearly as fast as colleges have raised tuition. Publishers have also begun to distribute books electronically, passing on some of the savings in production cost to students.
But the big advance will come as publishers begin to produce textbooks electronically. This is the process already begun by the quiet revolutionaries. Collaborative textbooks are usually built on the open-source model. The content is distributed freely and contributors make edits without being paid. I know at least one course at Yale that actually assigns an open textbook, and it is a quality text. But for the most part open-source textbooks are not yet assigned, because they don’t yet match the quality of for-profit publishing houses. The California Board of Education actively solicited cheaper wiki-textbooks during the budget crisis of 2009, but found none of sufficient quality at the time.
Regardless, I have no doubt that collaborative textbooks are the future. Their quality and availability will rise once the publishing companies embrace the future, and they should embrace it now. Collaborative textbooks will ultimately succeed because has the basis for superior production process. Open contribution will be cheaper than paying professors to stop teaching and write. Furthermore, open contribution will result in higher quality by tapping the brainpower of many more minds. To date no one has figured out how to use these superior inputs effectively — but it is only a matter of time.
To remain relevant, the publishing houses should attempt to capture the process now. By doing so, they can help us, the students. Current collaborative projects are disorganized processes and have an incoherent incentive structure. The publishers can push the projects forward, because they understand how a good book works and can centralize the editing process effectively. They can develop an internal editing marketplace, where contributors are rewarded for how helpful students find their explanations.
Finally, Yale should step out and lead the march. Should Yale announce that it wants to use 50 percent collaborative texts by 2020, you can bet that other universities will follow and publishers will listen. (Beside, alumni love it when their alma mater acts innovative and trendy.) More importantly, if universities take a lead role in developing collaborative textbook writing systems, they may be able to take ownership in the editing infrastructure. And what would university administrators do if they had ownership over the textbook production process? Hopefully, charge their students less. This would follow the same model that Yale is already using when it exerts pricing control over pharmaceutical research produced in its labs.
So, let’s toast to the future of textbooks. The only problem is that we’ll still have to read them.
Nathaniel Schwalb is a junior in Ezra Stiles College.