Monday, August 25, 2008

Open Access Pioneer Award #2: R. Preston McAfee

Great article in the LA Times on August 18 by Gale Holland about "Free digital textbooks." (see Free digital texts begin to challenge costly college textbooks in California)

The article discussed some issues in open source textbook publishing including in particular R. Preston McAfee's work on creating a free online economics textbook. McAfee is a professor at Caltech and is a self described right winger.
"I'm a right-wing economist, so they can't call me a communist," McAfee said.
And he goes on to say
"What makes us rich as a society is what we know and what we can do," he said. "Anything that stands in the way of the dissemination of knowledge is a real problem."
The article discussed other open source educational materials including:
  • Merlot, from Cal. St. Universities which is a "a searchable collection of peer-reviewed, online multimedia materials."
  • Connexions, from Rice University , which "stores free, open-licensed educational materials in fields such as music, electrical engineering and psychology.
  • OpenCourseWare from MIT which includes "virtually its entire curricula online -- video lectures, problems sets and exams for more than 1,800 courses in 33 disciplines."
  • Wikibooks, a collection of editable textbooks
  • The Digital Marketplace, from Cal. St. U. which is a "website for selecting, comparing, sharing, approving and distributing both open-source and commercial online educational materials."
Now, I am not saying here there is not a place for textbooks in the normal model (I have one).  Unlike basic science papers, for which the cost of making a presentable paper is relatively low, the cost of producing a textbook can be very very high.  Thus I think publishers are welcome to work with authors to come up with their own models for how to publish the texts.  But nevertheless, the more we can get good open source textbooks out there, the better off we will be.  And thus, for his role in promoting the release of what seems to be a high quality open source textbook, I am giving R. Preston McAfee my second "Open Access Pioneer Award.

Hat tip to Jeremy Peterson and Eilleen Hamilton for pointing this out.

2 comments:

  1. Now, I am not saying here there is not a place for textbooks in the normal model (I have one)

    Yes, but as I recall, you got involved in that collaboration before you got on your Open Access kick. While changing strategies mid-stream may have been impractical (and perhaps even illegal if you had already signed a contract with the publishers), if you were starting from scratch today, would you *still* have gone with the closed access route?

    Unlike basic science papers, for which the cost of making a presentable paper is relatively low, the cost of producing a textbook can be very very high. Thus I think publishers are welcome to work with authors to come up with their own models for how to publish the texts.

    Perhaps. But consider, many textbook publishers who publish $100+ hardback textbooks with color pictures sell black and white paperback versions to the third world at a fraction of the price. This isn't charity -- the publishers are still making money on these sales -- just not as much as they do for the needless "deluxe" versions they foist off on the developed world.

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  2. Yes, it is true I started the textbook before my OA "conversion." And it is also true I am starting work on an OA textbook. But given the amount of work CSHL put into the Evolution textbook, with editors, funds for meetings, artists, copy editors, distributors, etc, it is easy to see how some investment in the book is quite useful.

    Of course, you are right that the publishers may not do things for charity. But our textbook is designed as a reference volume more than anything and it is not getting its sales from being a requirement for 1000s of classes. So, given that some basic science papers in Elsevier journals cost $30 or even more, $100 for the book seems reasonable.

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