4 Questions authors are asking about open textbooks

Whether you are a veteran textbook author or new to the industry, you’ve likely heard of open educational resources (OER) and open textbooks by now. As with anything new, the open textbook model is faced with scrutiny and questions from those familiar with the traditional publishing process. It’s also laden with opportunities, such as the current $5M open textbook pilot program.

To better understand the open textbook model, specifically what is the same and what is different from traditional publishing options, we asked some questions of several leaders in the open textbook movement. Here’s what we learned.

Q: As an author, if I wanted to write an open textbook, where should I start?

Dave Dillon, TAA member and open textbook author of Blueprint for Success in College and Career, suggests starting with an understanding of Creative Commons Licensing and the 5Rs of OER: retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute. Most open textbooks are published under the CC BY licensing option that permits all five, while still allowing creators to retain copyright over the books.

Dillon says, “with that understanding, there are endless possibilities and greater academic freedom with open content. An author can become more of a curator, if open content already exists in your discipline.” As a curator, rather than a creator, you can speed up the textbook development process through adoption and customization of existing content rather than “recreating the wheel.”

"There are endless possibilities and greater academic freedom with open content." ~Dave Dillon, TAA member and open textbook author of Blueprint for Success in College and CareerClick to Tweet

Barbara Illowsky, co-author of one of the first open textbooks, Introductory Statistics, adds that her entry into open textbook publishing was different in that she had previously purchased the rights for her book back from a traditional publisher. As owner of the copyright, she had it available to republish as an open textbook. If she were starting a new open textbook, she would “look to see what is currently available under CC license, merge contents together, and fill in the missing pieces.” In fact, her open textbook was initially used by a professor in Oklahoma who modified it and republished a variation of the book under a new title, Introductory Business Statistics.

Illowsky stresses that open textbook authoring is collaborative. “I would get a group together rather than solo authoring,” she says.

Dani Nicholson, director of marketing & communications for OpenStax at Rice University, echoes the starting point being with existing openly licensed content and “then building upon and adapting it.” In addition to the OpenStax authoring platform, OpenStax CNX, she suggested checking out other authoring platforms including Open Author on OER Commons and Top Hat Textbook.

Of course, Nicholson invites new authors to contribute to the OpenStax library, also stressing the collaborative process associated with open textbook authoring: “We’re working on new books all the time, so if you want to contribute to an OpenStax project let us know if one of our upcoming titles is in your area of expertise.”

Q: What should I watch out for?

Dillon acknowledges that “there is a general misconception about the quality of OER being used for textbooks because ‘anyone can essentially publish anything’ and there is truth to the existence of materials that have not been peer reviewed and don’t hold up to scrutiny.” He also notes that, in his experience, there has been more emphasis on peer review of OER content in the last 3-5 years and many peer reviewed OER, like OpenStax OER texts, are of high quality.

Amy Hofer, Open Oregon Educational Resources, addresses this issue as well stating, “With the bar to publishing being very low, there is a lot of openly licensed content floating around that is different from a traditionally published textbook.” She notes, however, that “these materials aren’t meant to be a textbook of record” and rather reflect “very individual voices and approaches to pedagogy and content for the course.”

The open licensing structure provides for adaptation of these materials under an intentional and consistent voice for open textbook publishing, however. Illowsky reminds us, “Don’t redo what is already done out there. Do a good search so you don’t waste your time. Find a gap. What’s missing?” Hofer says, “Really good front matter…can help downstream users understand the author’s intent.”

By assuming the responsibility of curating and refining the existing material, an author of an open textbook must then be ready to face the scrutiny that may be associated with the ultimate quality of the work.

Illowsky says, “An open textbook is out there for everyone to see. The author needs a thick skin when the criticism comes in.” This is the direct result of the OER community. “Community is important,” she says. The community offers different perspectives, shares in the writing, and tends to have a greater willingness to provide feedback – both positive and critical. Put simply, there’s more buy in.

"Community is important." ~Barbara Illowsky, co-author of one of the first open textbooks, Introductory Statistics
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Nicholson reminds us of the variety of Creative Commons copyright licenses and cautions that “if you’re building upon any pre-existing content, make sure to check its licensing requirements to make sure it’s adaptable and learn how to provide attribution.” She also suggests thinking about the formats associated with your work: “What formats are easiest for your audience to access? What formats are accessible to people with visual or motor disabilities?”

Q: What can I expect in terms of return for my efforts and how can I get paid for the writing?

According to Nicholson, “It depends on your project – OpenStax authors are paid, but if you’re working on a textbook on your own you might want to look into if your campus has any grants available for instructors developing open content.”

As Dillon states, “OpenStax has a unique model because they are grant funded. OpenStax authors are paid upfront instead of royalties for development of material.” In addition to grant funding opportunities, he applied for sabbatical leave to develop his open textbook. As a result, he was “in essence paid half of an annual salary to curate, write, remix, and meld,” but noted that “a lot of open educators are doing it for free.”

Other returns are not financially measurable. Nicholson notes, “you also get the satisfaction and convenience of having a textbook that’s tailor-made for your course, and affordable to your students. We’ve seen that when students have a textbook that’s affordable and available from day one, they’re better prepared and more invested in the class.”

Illowsky sees this benefit as a “social justice” issue related to OER and as an added advantage, students don’t lose access at the end of the term or year, as they would with other cost-saving alternatives such as subscription-based services or rentals.

Dillon adds, “There’s a different reaction when people know you’re not making a profit. Marketing by word of mouth in the open community is different than in a traditional publishing environment. The reach is far greater. Many instructors are frustrated with non-substantive changes in new editions causing them to have to update their teaching materials when they often deem not necessary and for students to have to pay more. That has allowed for more welcomed interest in OER textbooks.” Given the relatively new nature of open textbook publishing options, authors often also receive accolades and recognition for being an OER leader.

Illowsky reminds us that “most authors are not earning millions of dollars a year from authoring [under the traditional publishing model]. Most textbook authors start out in a labor of love to develop what’s right for their students.” That said, she states, “people deserve to get paid for what they do” and suggests grants as a way to pay even a small stipend – for example $1,000 – per contributor.

She suggests rethinking the way money is earned if engaging in open textbook publishing options. In her experience, she earned more in consulting fees as a result of OER publishing than she would have expected to earn in royalties under the traditional model.

“The advantage of sharing is that other people share back,” she says. Illowsky cites personal experiences where community members contributed test banks, PowerPoint presentations, and thank you notes in genuine gratitude for her initial contribution of the textbook. Dillon shared that Jeanne Hoover, a librarian at East Carolina University, volunteered to supply a glossary and Deavon Clement, a student at Clover Park Technical College in Washington, voluntarily developed artwork and back cover design for use in his open textbook.

"The advantage of sharing is that other people share back." ~Barbara Illowsky, co-author of one of the first open textbooks, Introductory Statistics
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Clover Park Technical College’s Digital Entertainment Design & Production Program, in Washington State, led by faculty members Christopher Felch and Shawn Geary, has even opened a student-led Open Educational Resources (OER) Digital Production Lab.

Q: Is there anything else I might not be thinking about that would be important to know?

Illowsky offers, “If we’re educators, why wouldn’t we want to share?” She adds that academics who are writing and publishing in peer-reviewed journals are already publishing for various personal reasons (recognition, tenure, etc.) and are already active in similar publishing practices. By turning the business model away from royalty income and into consulting, authors can build a reputation and help students at the same time.

Nicholson shares the following closing thoughts from her position at OpenStax:

“We frequently hear from authors who are worried their work isn’t good or polished enough to share, but if your materials are good enough to help your students learn, they’re good enough to help someone else’s! It’s so valuable to share your materials on platforms like OER Commons where other instructors can use and adapt them (we have a hub there for materials built using our books). When you share, make sure your resource has a descriptive title and accurate tags so that other instructors can find it. You can also consider sharing your work on listservs specific to your field or campus where many people can benefit from it.

The process of creating a textbook is both intensive and rewarding. For information about the OpenStax process, take a look at our blog post about how OpenStax books are made.”

Hofer suggests reviewing the Open Textbook Network guide, Authoring Open Textbooks, by Melissa Falldin and Karen Lauritsen.

Dillon adds the BC Open Textbook Authoring Guide and an EdScoop article titled, “OER is at a tipping point. Here’s how to keep it moving in the right direction.” He also recommends working with organizations like the Rebus Community, who will not only guide you through the collaborative publishing process, but also help build communities of practice around your textbooks.

We suggest checking out the growing list of Open Access Resources on the TAA website and encourage you to let us know what other questions you have about open textbook publishing at this time.


Eric SchmiederEric Schmieder is the Membership Marketing Manager for TAA. He has taught computer technology concepts to curriculum, continuing education, and corporate training students since 2001. A lifelong learner, teacher, and textbook author, Eric seeks to use technology in ways that improve results in his daily processes and in the lives of those he serves. His latest textbook, Web, Database, and Programming: A foundational approach to data-driven application development using HTML, CSS, JavaScript, jQuery, MySQL, and PHP, First Edition, is available now through Sentia Publishing.