Free E-Textbooks for Students: Piracy, Open Educational Content, and the Future of Academic Publishing

A recent survey by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group found that 7 out of 10 college students have skipped buying a college textbook because of its price. The students said they recognize there are consequences for not doing so -- 78% said they expected to perform worse in a class where they hadn't purchased the textbook, even if they made plans to share or borrow the book from a friend.

The survey is another reminder of what almost every college student will tell you: many textbooks are prohibitively expensive. The average college student spends about $1000 a year on textbooks, about 26% of their yearly tuition, and the move from print to digital textbooks doesn't appear to provide much cost savings. Even worse, unlike print books, there is no secondhand market for e-books -- no returning your used e-books at the end of a semester for some cash to help subsidize the next semester's purchases.

So as back-to-school book-buying season is upon us, it's no surprise that at least one fairly new digital supplier of college textbooks is getting some very timely press coverage. The site is called Library Pirate, and it's just one of many sites online where people can download pirated copies of textbooks.

But unlike other sites that also offer movies or music, Library Pirate specializes in textbooks.

In an interview with the popular peer-to-peer filesharing blog Torrent Freak, the site's administrator paints participation in the site -- uploading as well as downloading these illegal e-book files -- as civil disobedience of sort: "Grab every textbook you can get your hands on and scan it so that everyone in the world can have a chance at education, he told Torrent Freak. Professors, students, and avid readers alike, it is our responsibility to do everything we can to make education available to all who seek it.

It's an argument that sounds a lot like that made by someone who, late last month, uploaded some 33 GB of academic journals onto The Pirate Bay. That act was done in response to the indictment of early Reddit-er Aaron Swartz, who was charged with felony hacking and computer fraud for downloading some 4.8 million papers from the academic journal database JSTOR. While Swartz's plans for his massive academic data trove weren't clear, the manifesto that accompanied that 33 GB upload invoked the "educational and scientific information should be free" mantra.

Now, I don't mean to conflate textbook publishing with academic journal publishing. One industry requires students buy and read the books; the other requires academics write for them, read and cite them, and requires academic libraries pay for subscriptions. And I don't mean to conflate the rationale of those who set up sites like Library Pirate and those who just simply can't afford to buy their school books and turn to file-sharing sites because they know it's an option.

GigaOm's Mathew Ingram has a great post today asking if we willdisruption in academic publishing. Certainly open educational resources, open access journals, and, of course, the open Web all provide part of the answer here -- academic content that is accessible, sharable, re-mixable. But most of all, it's content that is free. And whether we like it or not, that's the price point that more and more students might be looking for.


Tags: , , , , ,