Over the past few years, we’ve seen a lot of websites and organizations positioning themselves as student allies dedicated to bringing low-cost or free textbooks. Many of these dot-orgs and dot-coms are relying on open-source content as an equally useful alternative to proprietary and copyrighted materials like textbooks (Correction – Open Source conent are copyrighted martials, they are just published with the intent to be shared more freely). In theory, it makes a ton of sense. After all, the basic concepts of biology, sociology and physics haven’t changed and the base content is centuries old in some cases. However, the publishers have an edge over this open content in the form of PEER REVIEW. Peer review is where members of the academic community come together to review an author’s finds and deem it suitable (or not) for use in an academic setting. It’s a seal of approval, a stamp that the content is accurate and valuable. Without peer review and that endorsement, academic content is nothing more than words on a page.
This brings us to OpenStax College, which announced earlier this month and recently again at the Connexions Conference that they will be releasing free of charge a series of five books that have been developed and peer reviewed by educators (including two Nobel laureates). OpenStax College is an initiative of Rice University and is supported by donations from organization such as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and 20 Million Minds, and the group plans to offer more than 20 titles.
The first five books are College Physics, Intro to Sociology, Biology, Concepts of Biology, and Anatomy and Physiology. Once published, they will be free to download and view via the Web, PDF or EPUB. Given the nature of open-source content, faculty is a big part of the development process as they are encouraged to post corrections, suggest examples, or volunteer as editors.
As with a lot of the open-source content now being shared, it will take a bit of time for these books to work their way into the adoption process, but as they do, it is clear that a peer-reviewed book will have a leg up in credibility and thus in getting more widespread adoption and classroom use.