Tom's Two Cents

Will publishers engage with open textbooks?

Will publishers engage with open textbooks?

There’s a great conversation happening on The Chronicle of Higher Education blog, in the comment thread of the article entitled “Publishers Criticize Federal Investment in Open Educational Resources.”I want to capture some of it here, particularly the exchange I shared with someone named RWEJD. Feel free to add you comments to the main discussion, but I want to try to isolate some of these arguments here so I can think about them more. 

From the comments:

The $2B grant from government is a great idea for students, instructors, taxpayers, and society *if* the content and courseware created gets *used*, and matches the quality produced by professional, commercial publishers. To date, that is not even nearly the case.

Over the last decade The Hewlett Foundation (primarily, with others, like Gates) has spent well over $100M to create open content, and courseware. What’s the outcome of that investment? How much of that content was developed in a way that guarantees quality, interoperability, currency, etc. What plans are in place that make the many Open content repositories fiscally sustainable over the long term? How could this much money be spent with so little in the way of positive results?

There are even officials within DOE who consider the current Open content scene lacking in quality, simply “not good enough”.

btw, Gates is looking for a way to leverage commercial publishing interests (see:… Here, some percentage of development will go into “free” deployment, with the rest managed by Pearson.

Poorly vetted Open content; the lack of Open content interoperability; difficult to find Open content; poor Open content accessibility for the physically challenged; far too difficult interfaces to Open content repositories (discouraging participation), and so on – all a direct result of *not* including the commercial sector in the creation and deployment of content.

Over years, academic institutions that have been so generously funded to create Open content, have assumed the idea that “we can be publishers, too”. Well, they’re not! They don’t have the skill sets necessary to pull it off – i.e. the marketing insights; the packaging skills; the technology chops; the ability to create Open content publish models that are blatantly self-sustainable; the ability to leverage content into new tech-based modalities; and so on. Again, the skill sets necessary for successful development of Open content *do not* reside within the academic (or academic based) organizations that have been funded over the last decade to make Open content and courseware a viable entity – an entity that fulfills all the promises and advantages that David Wiley list in his post, below.

If the non-profit Open content players want to succeed in a way that delivers the full promise of Open content, they are going to have to employ publishing professionals. Currently,  that’s not happening. The entire enterprise is filled with well-meaning and dedicated individuals who mostly have no idea how to properly filter, vet, develop, deploy, and maintain content and courseware that is interoperable within devices and platforms, fiscally sustainable, universally accessible, and kept current. That’s the current record, after $100M spent.

Of course, the current well-known non-profit players within the Open content arena are gong to have “first dibs” on much of the well-intended $2B issued by DOE/DOL. That’s unfortunate.

Here’s a prediction: Until the current flock of non-profit Open content groups begin to hire educational publishing professionals to *run and operate* their Open content publishing initiatives, we will not see sustainable models, or even great content, as a result. That may sound like heresy, but that’s the reality. To anyone who wants to argue this point, my retort is “after a dozen years and well over $100M in funding, where’s the beef?”. We need to keep in mind that $100M is enough to start, from beginning to end, a publishing company that could *easily* begin an enterprise that could over time compete on an equal footing with any one of the commercial giants, in a sustainable way *if* it was run an operated by dedicated, motivated educational publishing professionals.

Instead, what we’re about to do is use $2B in tax dollars to have a ton of barely good enough content developed by well-meaning amateurs. The best of that content will be taken up by commercial publishers, developed and marketed to a standard that meets the exacting demands of teaching academics (including the best online venues). Why go that route? Why should we develop inferior content and count on the professionals to take the best of that inferior content for eventual use?

Let’s use our taxpayer money wisely; let’s demand that the *very best and most skilled* educational publishing professionals are in charge of and operable within the institutions that are funded to develop Open content and Open courseware. There is no excuse for anything less.

RWEJD, I agree with your last statement: “Let’s use our taxpayer money wisely.” Now, a few questions:
1. Is it wise to rent when you can own for less?
2. Is it wise to pay $10 billion every year for K-12 textbooks if taxpayers could pay for them once plus a small annual amount to keep them up-to-date?
3. Is it wise to continue with a copyright model that reserves all the rights for publishers when there are new models that allow for upan access and sharing of materials? 

Publishers can still play. They should be allowed to respond to the open textbook RFPs like anyone else. They will be paid well for their services, and when the job is done they will be required to attach an open, shareable license to their work. So, yes, publishers can still play. They just don’t get to make the rules anymore.

US taxpayers pay roughly $10 billion every year for K-12 textbooks. 50% of US college students take out federal loans to pay for another $10 billion in college textbooks. So it’s fair to say that taxpayer money pays for most of that $20 billion. This is not a debate about quality. It’s a question of efficiency.

The Department of Defense’s Open Technology Development report contains an analogy that is relevant to this discussion:
“Imagine if only the manufacturer of a rifle were allowed to clean,
fix, modify or upgrade that rifle. The military often finds itself in
this position with taxpayer funded, contractor developed software: one
contractor with a monopoly on the knowledge of a military software
system and control of the software source code…. This is optimal only
for the monopoly contractor, but creates inefficiencies and
ineffectiveness for the
government, reduction of opportunities for the industrial base, severely
limits competition for new software upgrades, depletes resources that
can be used to better effect and wastes taxpayer-provided funds.”

No one should be surprised to see publishers taking a strong stand against all of this. But let’s all remember that publishers are a means to an end. This is really about providing educational opportunity to students in the best, most efficient way possible.


I am an ardent supporter of the OER movement. Please don’t misread my comments as anything other than hard-hitting constructive criticism.  It’s hard-hitting because there has been too much soft-pedaling around the lack of high quality execution relative to the investments made. That should not have happened, and we don’t want to see it continue to happen.

You say commercial publishers can still play. Sure, they can respond to RFP’s but unlike the academic-based groups that are competing for those RFP’s, the commercial publishers have to make a profit. That’s one of the reasons why textbook prices are so egregiously. There are one or two new commercial publishers that are playing in the Open license space, but one must note that their licenses are not completely Open; there’s a reason for that. Commercial publishers have to find some way to protect their investment; completely Open licenses forbid that.

There may be some publishing models that will evolve to wrap high quality services around high quality content – using content as a loss-leading lever to drive profit. We’ll probably see some of those ideas coming from the large commercial publishers, sooner or later.

To reinforce a point I made a few minutes ago, to Wayne Mackintosh; publishers *and* academic authors have profited *together* within the current model. This is not just about the “Big Bad Publishers”. Sure, they make the bulk of the profit, but they have had help from the “inside”. Let’s not kid ourselves.

I am in full agreement with you about the egregious nature of current cost to taxpayers re: textbooks.  So, why would you not be in full agreement with me re: having the Feds insist that these Open content publishing efforts be run by those most qualified to create world-class content – i.e., the best publishing professionals our tax money can buy?

Again, I am an ardent supporter of Open source. Dis amateur programmers create Linux, or other widely used Open software and operating systems? Of course not. Open source siftware did not have the luxury of government funding. Open content does. We need to bring the best talent to make sure we’re getting our money’s worth, instead of feeding programs and instutions that have heretofore failed to execute. That may sound harsh, but that’s the way it is.  The current crop of Open content repositories and creators (and, they’re mostly repositories – as most Open content is just not first-rate; nor, has it been created by the current crop of Open content grantees. Instead, it’s mostly recycled content that is offered up piece by piece and hard to find, or content that couldn’t cut it in the marketplace when put head-to-head against the best high quality commercial content.

you write: “No one should be surprised to see publishers taking a strong stand against
all of this. But let’s all remember that publishers are a means to an
end. This is really about providing educational opportunity to students
in the best, most efficient way possible.”

We’re in complete agreement – assuming you and DOE/DOL put the *best talent money can buy* working to use our taxpayer dollars to achieve the goals in your statement, above. Why aren’t we insisting on that? I, for one, will be very incensed of some years hence we end up with more of the same hodgepodge of medium quality, non-interoperable, lacking currency, and unsustainable content that currently lives in richly funded Open content repositories and other Open content plays. Are we serious about the following goal, as you state: “This is really about providing educational opportunity to students
in the best, most efficient way possible.”. If we are we need to have the best and most qualified people in place to make that happen. Currently, that’s not the case.

I  appreciate your criticisms. I take a fairly practical approach to the  open licensing of educational content, and I see no reason to exclude  publishers from this discussion. Should the government require an open  license on all these materials? Absolutely.

What publishers are  experiencing is a sped-up version of the disruption that occurred to  icemen with the invention and spread of electric refrigerators. Some in  the ice delivery industry made the transition to selling refrigerators  and some did not, largely because some were focused on keeping food cool  and others were only focused on selling ice.
If Pearson won’t  take $X million to create an openly licensed, high quality Human Anatomy  textbook, maybe Soomo will. Open licensing means the publisher will need to learn to do business differently. Open licensing is a game changer, a much-needed efficiency, and it is here to stay.

The  Open Course Library is an interesting hybrid in this open educational  content experiment. I work in a system that serves nearly 500,000  community and technical college students in the state of Washington. A  carefully selected group of our best faculty are currently drawing from  the world’s OER materials to produce open (CC-BY) digital curriculum for  81 of our highest enrolling courses. We are doing this with the  assistance of talented librarians, accessibility experts, and  instructional designers who are Quality Matters Master Reviewers. Our  attempt is not perfect, but it is a strong one, and I expect others will  build on it. The project is described at

The Open Course Library has not closed the door on publishers, but it does  require them to work with pricing limits aimed at driving down the cost of textbooks. Many have responded. Several Open Course  Library courses use texts from Cengage, Pearson, McGraw-Hill, and Flat World Knowledge. With the notable exception of Flat World Knowledge, the publisher’s materials are neither free nor open; but we have required them to be offered to the world (not just our system) for less  than $30 US. This is how our  system is pulling together the best OER, identifying any gaps, and working with low cost commercial materials until more high quality, open,  shareable, free textbooks are made available.

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