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Textbooks free and online! What are our universities doing?

Roger Atkinson

My local government area, the City of South Perth, is engaged now in a skirmish in the long running war over residential density zonings, "R-codes" in our State. Digging into my old newspaper clippings file, I found a headline, 'Student ghetto' warning (Southern Gazette, 2010). One of our Councillors from a ward adjoining Curtin University was concerned that "... if there was an increase in residential zoning there could be a situation where big units are being built for student accommodation ... could turn into a student ghetto". That five year old, "town versus gown" clipping reminded me that many students face rising costs for accommodation. Whilst my own local government is tending towards negative rather than facilitative responses! So the clipping diverted me from our current skirmish over R-codes to a broader, less parochial topic, namely the overall cost of student living. Whilst academia's influence upon this big topic is small, one component in the cost of student living is very much subject to or even almost controlled by academic influences. This is the cost of textbooks. Academics prescribe textbooks, students buy as instructed. The textbook prescription may be quite expensive, or may be for a free and online textbook (after Glance, 2012).

So, what are Australian universities doing to utilise free and online textbooks? What are the constraints inhibiting our exploration of the free and online direction? To begin with, we can assert quite strongly that ICT (information communications technology) is not a limitation. To illustrate, for many years the ICT industries have continued to deliver almost never ending advances in computers, digital storage, networking, software and network access services. Better, cheaper, faster! To illustrate further, free wifi access for students is now widespread and trending towards universal adoption on university campuses and in residential colleges. Campuses now have a decreasing dependency upon computer laboratories, as students move into 'BYOD' (bring your own device), with very capable, lightweight laptops and tablets now costing less than the textbooks for a typical undergraduate year. Furthermore, compared with previous generations, the current generation of undergraduates is much better equipped with ICT skills and anticipations about using these skills in their learning.

The key point is that there's no doubt about the demand side concerning free and online textbooks (e.g. Knight, 2015; Senack, 2014). The demand side will "lap it up" (enthusiastic adoption with desktops, laptops, iPads and other tablets, smart phones). The problems are on the supply side. For example, are Australian academics searching, finding and prescribing free and online textbooks, or obtaining licences under which the university absorbs the access fees? Are Australian universities publishing free and online textbooks? How many universities are following or considering this example from the University of Adelaide's Undergraduate Program Guide 2016: Sciences?

Free technology
The faculty knows that technology and educational tools can add to financial stress for students. To minimise this stress the Faculty of Sciences provides access to free online textbooks and online educational resources. First year courses in Biology, Geology and all but two Physics courses have no requirement for a printed textbook. (University of Adelaide, 2015, p.4)
Too many questions for one brief column! So for the time being, consider one particular category on the supply side for free and online. Table 1 is illustrative, though not comprehensive, for Australian university publication of free and online scholarly works, listing four Australian 'early adopters', using a term from Everett Rogers' Diffusion of innovations (Rogers, 2003). Except for the last row, University of Southern Queensland, the 'early adopters' have little to do with undergraduate textbooks, though many books in their catalogues may be valuable advanced references for later year undergraduates and postgraduates. However, all four may be important as 'bridgeheads' into the territories of commercial publishers, that over time will help change and broaden academic attitudes towards free and online. Of course, there are other 'bridgeheads', such as MOOCs and open educational resources (e.g. Atkinson, 2014), individual self-published online texts for a specific course (e.g. Pace, 2013; Stewart, 2009), and many individual university guides for locating and using open educational resources (e.g. La Trobe University, 2014; Griffith University, 2014; University of Queensland, 2014). The more 'bridgeheads' the better, if one accepts the desirability of replacing students' purchases of something expensive with something free and online.

Table 1: Some Australian 'early adopters' and promoters of free and online publishing initiatives

UniversityIllustrative quotationIllustrative URLs
University of Adelaide PressRefereed scholarly books in print and free PDF...
... We only consider submissions by current University of Adelaide staff and title holders....
... The Press is recognised as a commercial press by HERDC and ERA. We are not a vanity press for automatic publication of any work, it must be recommended by two anonymous peer-reviewers.
... in contrast to the average sale of just 350 copies world-wide of a traditionally published academic work, titles can achieve many 1000s of downloads.
... As of this week [19 June 2015], University of Adelaide Press has clocked up more than 503,000 downloads of its 47 book titles.
Australian National University PressIn 2013, ANU Press launched its newest imprint, ANU eTEXT ... open access option for ANU academics ... develop and distribute their textbooks...
... eTEXT Grant Scheme ... provide ANU scholars with funds for production of their textbooks as freely available ebooks...
... is recognised by the Department of Industry as a commercial publisher, enabling ANU Press authors to gain full recognition under the Higher Education Research Data Collection scheme.
Monash University Publishing... open access titles (read online for free)...
Monash University Publishing's scholarly titles pass through a rigorous process of peer review prior to being accepted for publication. They are counted in the Higher Education Research Collection Data (HERDC).
... Authors outside of Monash University ... Monash University Publishing offers: ... publication of your work online open access, thereby enabling for this work the maximum reach, readership and impact...
University of Southern QueenslandOpen textbooks ... made available online to be freely used by students, teachers and members of the public.
... goal of the Initiative is to provide the opportunity for USQ academics to experiment in finding new, better and less costly ways to deliver learning materials to their students...
... academics can receive funding to develop an alternative or Open Textbook...
... Successful applicants will receive $15,000 to support their activities. They will also receive support and advice from the Academic Services Division...
... Any academic staff member, at any USQ campus, wanting to explore the role and development of an Open Textbook for a course they are teaching may apply.

Table 1 is illustrative with respect to at least five quite interesting aspects. Firstly, quite admirably, the books are all free and open to the Internet, and are not subject to restrictions, such as being placed within a learning management system that confines the free access to students enrolled in a particular course. Secondly, and also quite admirably, there is some recognition, most explicitly in the USQ example, that special funding is desirable for stimulating interest from academics. Thirdly, it is probable that confining author recruitment to a university's own staff will be a common option (Monash is the exception in Table 1). This restriction may be related to the perceived importance of the publications as a dissemination of a university's research effort, compared with the lesser importance of expanding the publishing house work to attain economies of scale, or building its reputation as an innovative publisher - understandable, though not necessarily admirable, because it may discourage inter-university teams. Fourthly, there is usually an implied recognition that publishing house services are highly desirable or even essential for attaining a high quality and "in demand" work. Quite often these services are available already, though oriented more towards teaching and learning resources, via existing units that provide learning design, media, online publishing, library and related services, in the cases of universities which do not have a "press" or "publisher" unit.

Finally, behind Table 1 there is a perceived need to project textbooks as research publications. A major constraint inhibiting exploration of the free and online direction, especially in the case of elementary or first year textbooks! The pressure towards "textbooks as research" encountered in my readings for Table 1 reflects the influence of Australian Government policies on recognition of research publications, as imposed by its agencies the ARC (2014) and DET (2014). These agencies state that textbooks "are unlikely to meet the eligibility criteria for the 'Book' research output type" (ARC, 2014, p.37) and "The types of books that do not meet the criteria include: textbooks ..." (DET, 2014, p.23). Prior to about 2010 the DET criteria for eligibility of books and book chapters as research included an additional hurdle, a clause "... must be offered for sale ... - for e-books, on subscription or fee basis", thereby excluding free and online books. This 'cultural shift' by DET/ARC when they removed this hurdle has enabled university publishers to offer free and online as the way to maximise the "reach, readership and impact" for many scholarly publications (Table 1).

So, do academics need to work diligently and astutely to counter the DET and ARC constraints upon textbook publishing initiatives? Work diligently, that is more hours, upon individual or group authorship for a "non-research" textbook, whilst concurrently working to produce one's expected tally of "research outputs" in the form of journal publications? Or, work astutely, to participate in writing a book or book chapter that is on the better rewarded side of the fuzzy dividing line between "research" and "non-research" publication. Both of these paths are likely to persist, with increasing prominence for free and online as the prime strategy for maximising "reach, readership and impact" (Table 1). Perhaps the latter path, research oriented books and book chapters made free and online via a university, will become an influential 'bridgehead' challenging commercial publishers such as Information Age Publishing, Pearson, Wiley, Kogan Page, Elsevier, Springer, etc. Specialised scholarly books with "average sale of just 350 copies world-wide" (Table 1) are a weak point in commercial publishing and thus are targets for free and online bridgeheads.

However, establishing free and online textbooks for large enrolment undergraduate courses is much more difficult, owing to the dominant, entrenched positions held by the major multinational publishers. To illustrate, consider McGraw-Hill Education Australia's website marketing of a widely adopted textbook for first year biology:

Biology: An Australian focus reflects on worldwide biological research and knowledge to provide a global outlook with Australian examples and cases woven throughout. ... Available in a traditional textbook form [AU$162.95] or as a SmartBookTM [AU$64.96], this fifth edition combines authoritative, peer-reviewed content with superior educational technology. Including a Connect® package [AU$20.00] with interactive activities, animations, conceptual testbank and a full suite of instructor resources, and a newly developed, fully localised LearnSmart® [AU$19.95] for a truly adaptive and personalised learning experience. ... Biology: An Australian focus offers a complete learning package for all Australian biology students. (Knox, Ladiges, Evans & Saint, 2014)
With eminent authors from prestigious universities, numerous previous editions, attractive optional extras, a large discount for online only, adoption at many Australian universities, and the promise of being "a complete learning package for all Australian biology students", Biology: An Australian focus sets a formidably high rampart to deter competitors coming from the free and online camps. However, there is a potential chink behind the terms "personalised" and "a complete learning package". For many students a preferred interpretation of "personalised" may mean relating personally to tutors, lecturers and fellow students, in contrast to relating to a "package" that personalises through solitary activities such as a "conceptual testbank". For the free and online camps, the way to exploit this chink could be emphasising social constructivism in class and online activities, which may be staff labour intensive, but can add great value to a free and online, though less prestigious textbook.

Our universities have attained some bridgeheads in a developing struggle to replace some or even many expensive commercial textbooks with free and online equivalents. The promotion of free and online for scholarly works including textbooks, illustrated in Table 1, is an important contribution to a 'cultural change', as we may reasonably expect that choosing free and online for one's research output will be associated with increased willingness to find free and online for students' textbooks, wherever possible. It is important to persist, as sometime soon the Australian Government will attain its goals pertaining to making students pay more for their degrees. If academics can take a few hundred dollars off the cost by choosing free to the Internet textbooks for many or even most courses, please try to do so!


ARC (Australian Research Council) (2014). ERA 2015 Submission Guidelines. [1.4 MB]

Atkinson, R. J. (2014). MOOCs revisited: An Aesop's Fables perspective. HERDSA News, 36(2).

DET (Department of Education and Training) (2014). Higher Education Research Data Collection 2015: HERDC Specifications.

Griffith University (2014). Guide for Academic Staff Working on Griffith Online Programs. pp7-9: What are the options when you have a required text?

Glance, D. (2012). Sick of paying for textbooks? Get them now, free and online. The Conversation, 18 July.

Knight, B. A. (2015). Teachers' use of textbooks in the digital age. Cogent Education, 2:1015812.

Knox, B., Ladiges, P., Evans, B. & Saint, R. (2014). Biology: An Australian focus. 5th ed. McGraw-Hill Education Australia.

La Trobe University (2014). Open education practice. Version 1.0, May 2014.

Pace, S. (2013). The evolution of a free online textbook. In M. Horsley & D. L. Brien (Eds), TEXT Special Issue No 23 Textbooks and educational texts in the 21st century: writing, publishing and reading.

Senack, E. (2014). Fixing the broken textbook market: How students respond to high textbook costs and demand alternatives. Washington, DC: United States Public Interest Research Group.

Southern Gazette (2010). Fears over rezoning: 'Student ghetto' warning. Southern Gazette, Perth, 11 May.

Stewart, R. H. (2009). Some thoughts on free textbooks. Educause Review, 14 January.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations, 5th Ed. NY: Simon and Schuster. (try Google Books or for a quick preview)

University of Adelaide (2015). Undergraduate Program Guide 2016: Sciences.

University of Queensland (2014). E-Textbook FAQs.

Author: Roger Atkinson retired from Murdoch University in June 2001. His current activities include honorary work on the TL Forum conference series, Issues in Educational Research, and other academic conference support and publishing activities. Website (including this article in html format):

Note: The version presented here is slightly longer than the print published version, as it includes a number of references that were omitted for space constratint reasons.

Please cite as: Atkinson, R. J. (2015). Textbooks free and online! What are our universities doing? HERDSA News, 37(2).

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