More than cost is involved in the transition to digital texts. Not only do they save on paper, printing, and shipping (an environmental plus), they can be more up-to-date. “Anything digital can be updated on the fly based on what the researcher who wrote the book learned yesterday in the lab,” Hegarty says.
While going digital creates a new set of opportunities, it has also led to new challenges. Once a book is in digital form, it becomes easy to copy and move. Illegal textbook swapping online, Napster style, has gained the attention of publishers, who are vigorously trying to stamp it out. The textbook-sharing site of one online Robin Hood was just put out of business for the fifth and final time. (See interview, below.)
Others are thinking even more radically about textbooks. Richard Baraniuk, a professor of electrical engineering at Rice University in Houston, has founded Connexions, a nonprofit website featuring free “open source” textbooks. Their authors ask for no payment, only that they be given credit for their writings and that the material remain free of charge. A 300-page textbook on the fundamentals of electrical engineering, for example, can cost $120 from a textbook publisher, Professor Baraniuk says. To print out a similar free Connexions textbook would cost about $20.
Baraniuk started with his own textbook on signal processing, which has been accessed at Connexions (cnx.org) more than 2.8 million times.
“Basically the whole system is broken, the system by which we conceive of writing books,” he says. The material in Connexions is divided into chapter-like modules of information, some 6,500 so far, that can be accessed individually or combined to form about 350 full textbooks.