Open Textbooks: More Information

What Are Open Textbooks?

Open textbooks are high-quality college texts with an "open" copyright license allowing the material to be freely accessed, shared and adapted.   Open textbooks are typically distributed online at no cost and can be purchased in a variety of other print and digital formats at a low cost, including hard bound copies.  On average, using open textbooks in place of traditional textbooks saves students 80% on average.

As far as the textbook material is concerned, open textbooks have many similarities with traditional textbooks.  The educational content is written and reviewed by experts, and it aims to cover a similar scope and sequence of topics.  Many even come with support materials like online homework, test banks, and supplemental videos.

What sets open textbooks apart is the "open" license, which enables two key features.  First, open textbooks can be legally shared, copied, and distributed, so students can access the material in a wide range of print and digital formats at little or no cost, without fear of expiration dates.  Second, open textbooks can be legally adapted by instructors, which makes it is possible to add new material, change terminology, or remove unnecessary chapters so the textbook perfectly fits a class.

Using Open Textbooks 

Open textbooks are used just like any other textbook. In fact, hard copies are even sold in bookstores. The primary differences are that students can choose from a variety of affordable formats, and that instructors have the option to customize or supplement the book if desired. 

Open textbooks combine the convenience of free online access with the flexibility of multiple printing options.  Students can select the format that fits their budget and learning style. Whether students have access to a computer is still a concern, as with any digital educational material. However, open textbooks offer students affordable alternatives that other digital materials do not, such as printing out all of the pages that they will need or purchasing an affordable print copy.

 Research indicates that students have diverse preferences about using digital textbooks, so choosing from multiple open textbook formats can work to their advantage.

Findings of a student survey conducted by the Student PIRGs:

  • 75% would prefer print textbooks to digital textbooks, if cost is not a factor. 
  • 22% would be uncomfortable reading a textbook on a computer screen, 33% would be comfortable, and 45% would be in between. 
  • 60% said that they would still purchase an affordably priced ($20-$40) print copy of a textbook, even if the digital version were free.

Instructors also benefit from the flexibility of open textbooks.  Since the texts are free online, all students have access to the material, regardless of their financial circumstances.  Furthermore, most open licenses permit instructors to create customized versions of the textbook for use in their own classroom.  For example, an instructor could remove unwanted chapters, change notations, or insert their own sections and examples.  Instructors can distribute their customized versions online, or have them printed for students by the bookstore or a local copy shop.

Writing and Publishing Open Textbooks 

The most common question about open textbooks is why would someone write one? The answer to that question varies from author to author. Some authors seek the royalties paid by open textbook publishers, others desire global access to their material, and others seek to fill a niche in the market with a free textbook. 

Here are some examples that illustrate how open textbooks are written and published:

  • Grant programs: Numerous states including CaliforniaBritish Columbia and Washington have invested in grant programs to develop open textbooks.  The U.S. Department of Labor has a similar program geared toward workforce training classes at community colleges.  In 2009, Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) introduced a bill (S.1714) to create a federal open textbook competitive grant program. To encourage innovation, the program would give preference to authors who partner with for-profit open textbook publishers.  
  • Publishers: Organizations such as OpenStax CollegeCK-12Boundless Learning and (until recently) Flat World Knowledge have developed sustainable publishing models around open textbooks.  These initiatives pay authors to develop and update the texts, while generating revenue through optional products for students, such as print copies, or partnerships with companies who offer additional services, such as assessments or homework software.
  • Individual authors: Dr. Benjamin Crowell of Fullerton College in California wrote and published the Light and Matter Series of introductory physics textbooks. Some authors, such as Dr. R. Preston McAfee, have turned down contracts offered by traditional publishers to make their textbooks open.
  • Support from institutions: A consortium of community colleges coordinated funding to create Collaborative Statistics, and is currently working on several more. Also, the University of Puget Sound enabled Dr. Robert Beezer to write the open textbook A First Course in Linear Algebra on sabbatical.

As traditional textbook prices continue to rise, the need for more affordable options becomes increasingly urgent.  Open textbooks are an attractive alternative, but we think that they are only a solution if sustainable publishing models develop.  Textbook authors need compensation, the content must be peer reviewed, and the books must be marketed to instructors - all of which involve substantial costs.  Empirical evidence - from this industry and others - suggests that successful open textbook business models can develop. It will not happen overnight, but open textbooks could gain substantial traction in the market and and put significant downward pressure on prices.

Open Educational Resources

Open textbooks fall under a broader category of openly licensed materials known as open educational resources (OER).  Like open textbooks, each open resource - videos, tests, lecture notes, online courses, and more - is similar to its traditional counterpart, except it is distributed under an open license that makes it free to access, legal to customize and affordable to reproduce. 

Video: Open Education and the Future, a TED Talk by Dr. David Wiley, an expert from Brigham Young University. 

Open Licenses

An open textbook is defined by its "open" copyright license, which grants a set of usage rights to the public that enable free and open use of the material.  The specific license terms vary from book to book, but typically grant the right to share, adapt, translate and distribute the material as long as attribution is given to the author.  Some licenses restrict commercial use or require that any derivatives retain the same license as the original.
Some common licenses for open textbooks are:

Open licenses do not replace copyright; they work with a copyright to change the default setting from "All Rights Reserved" to "Some Rights Reserved." Under US law, copyright is the exclusive right to dictate how users copy, distribute and adapt a work.  By default, all of those rights are reserved by the author, and anyone who wants to use it needs to get permission from the author in the form of a license.  Open licenses are a particular kind of license that enable authors to grant blanket permission to everyone, which makes it much easier for people to legally use the material in the ways the license allows. 

To know whether a textbook is under an open license or not, look at the copyright page.  The author will have put a statement that looks like this:

© 2012 Nicole Allen Some Rights Reserved. This work is licensed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 License.

Open licenses do not expire and cannot be revoked, so open textbooks will always remain "open" under the license terms.  However, the author may release subsequent editions of the textbook under different terms.

Other Sources of Open Textbooks

  • Open Academics Textbook Catalog: a new project by the University of Minnesota to catalog and review open textbooks.
  • College Open Textbooks: an effort to explore different models of open textbook development and improvement.  Offers a long list of open texts and reviews.
  • Flat World Knowledge: Publisher of over 100 books that cost $20 to read on the company's site, but are available for free as open textbooks at
  • OpenStax College: a new project to create professional-grade, fully supported open textbooks.
  • Project Gutenberg: an extensive digital library of public domain books (e.g. Jane Austen's novels).  Also look at Manybooks.netfor formatted copies, including PDF, ePub and iPod notes.
  • Orange Grove Texts: a searchable repository of open textbooks created in conjunction with the University Press of Florida.
  • Worldwide Center of Mathematics: publishes low-cost textbooks with free and open video lectures.
  • CK-12: a project to develop high school textbooks that meet state standards.  Offers more than 20 texts in core high school subjects, which may overlap with community college courses.

Other Sources of Open Course Materials

  • Connexions: a repository of open educational materials, including some open textbooks. The platform is integrated with a print on demand publisher and is maintained by Rice University.
  • OER Commons: another repository of open educational materials with advanced search functions.
  • Open Learning Initiative: Carnegie Mellon's famous library of open courses, which are integrated with analytics that help them improve the course over time.
  • Saylor Foundation: A collection of open course materials for high-enrollment college courses.  Currently, they are offering a $25,000 prize for open textbooks accepted into their repository.