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Some Thoughts on Free Textbooks


Introduction to Physical Oceanography; Our Ocean Planet; Environmental Science in the 21st Century

Robert Stewart, Professor, Oceanography Department, Texas A&M University

Some Thoughts on Free Textbooks

By Robert Stewart

Comments on this article can be sent to the author at <stewart@ocean.tamu.edu> and/or can be posted to the web via the link at the bottom of this page.

I publish and freely distribute three online textbooks. Introduction to Physical Oceanography is available as a typeset book in Portable Document Format (PDF) or as web pages. Our Ocean Planet: Oceanography in the 21st Century and Environmental Science in the 21st Century are both available as web pages. All three books, which can be accessed from the Ocean World website (http://oceanworld.tamu.edu/index.html), are widely used by professors and students throughout the world. The Physical Oceanography textbook has become especially popular and has been translated into Portuguese and Italian and partly into Russian. Thus, I am frequently asked why I make my textbooks available for free and why I avoided the traditional route to publication through commercial publishers, thereby giving up the royalties I could have earned from printed textbooks. I have several answers.

First is timeliness. Textbooks are usually out-of-date by the time they are published, usually two to three years after the author has finished writing the book. More than six years ago, Professor Randol Larson noted: “In my opinion, technology textbooks are a waste of natural resources. They're out of date the moment they are published. Because of their short shelf life, students don't even want to hold on to them.”1 By publishing in electronic form, I can make revisions every year, keeping the book current. Quick revision is especially important in oceanography. Our understanding of the ocean is changing rapidly thanks to an armada of satellites and drifters observing even the most remote areas. Worldwide, several thousand oceanographers are observing new types of currents seen by satellites and are describing tens of thousands of new types of microbes and their importance, while others are revising our knowledge of the role of the ocean in global warming. Important discoveries come out every few months.

Second is cost. Many oceanography textbooks are 500–600 pages long, with hundreds of figures and illustrations drawn by artists hired by the publisher. The books try to be all things to all readers, with far too much material for a typical college/university course. The $100–$150 cost of these textbooks is necessary to cover the expense of illustrations and the many pages of color. My books are free, or they can be printed for $20 by local copy centers.

Third is quality control. Students, professors, and many others read my material and reply with comments for improvement, information on factual errors, and notes on typographical errors. It is easy for them to reach me, since my e-mail address is on all my web pages. It is much harder to reach authors of printed books, and it is much harder for those authors to correct errors in their texts.

Fourth is professional recognition. I am frequently stopped at conferences by all manner of readers, from strangers to renowned professors, who thank me for my books. Their words of thanks are worth far more than the few thousand dollars in royalties that I will not collect.

Finally is the fact that much material cannot be printed. Animations from numerical models illustrate concepts difficult to explain in words. A short film clip of the tsunami coming ashore at Banda Aceh in Indonesia on December 26, 2004, is much more effective in showing the power of a tsunami than any words I might write. Film clips and other multimedia materials are becoming increasingly available for use as more of them are being produced by experts.

I am not alone in offering free textbooks. Professors throughout the world are moving their material online. “The writing of textbooks and making them freely available on the web is an idea whose time has arrived,” states George Cain, on his website Online Mathematics Textbooks (http://www.math.gatech.edu/~cain/textbooks/onlinebooks.html), which lists seventy-two college/university-level mathematics textbooks that are freely available on the web. The Textbook Revolution website (http://www.textbookrevolution.org) lists hundreds of other textbooks, on subjects ranging from biology to world history.

Online publication is the future. The benefits of rapid updates, low cost, quality control by colleagues and readers, professional recognition for authors, and non-print, multimedia materials will enable online textbooks to replace textbooks from traditional publishing houses. We are on a path to a paperless work environment. We receive and pay bills online. We download and read newspaper articles and professional scientific papers. We use e-mail, not slow-mail. And students use Google and other search engines to find material for their course papers. For many students, “If it isn’t online, it doesn’t exist.”

  1. Randol Larson quoted in “E-Enabled Textbooks: Lower Cost, Higher Functionality,” Syllabus, May 7, 2002, <http://campustechnology.com/articles/39043/>.

© 2009 Robert Stewart

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