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Digital Textbooks

E-books show a lot of promise but haven't yet caught on widely with professors and students

by Sophie L. Rovner
July 27, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 30

Credit: McGraw-Hill
Students can highlight text and insert notes in the digital version of textbooks such as “Chemistry in Context.”
Credit: McGraw-Hill
Students can highlight text and insert notes in the digital version of textbooks such as “Chemistry in Context.”

The era of digital textbooks seems to be perpetually around the corner. Publishers have made these e-books available for a number of years, yet it’s difficult to find a chemistry professor who uses them.

Only 18% of college and university students have purchased or accessed digital textbooks, according to a 2008 report from the National Association of College Stores.

And less than half of all college students are even aware of digital textbooks, notes Frank Lyman, executive vice president of CourseSmart, a major digital textbook provider. Nevertheless, Lyman says that his company has sold digital textbooks to “hundreds of thousands of students at over 5,800 colleges and universities in North America” since it was founded in August 2007. “Our sale of e-textbooks has increased 600% year over year, which is a clear indicator that the digital model is being embraced by students and faculty,” he says.

ACS Puts Its Symposium Book Series Online

The American Chemical Society continues to expand into the digital publishing realm. Beginning this week, electronic editions of books in the ACS Symposium Series will be made available to readers via the ACS Publications Division website.

The series contains more than 1,200 peer-reviewed books on a broad range of topics, including agricultural and food chemistry, organic chemistry, materials, and chemical education. Many of the chapters in these books are expanded versions of symposium papers presented during ACS national meetings; additional chapters are written by invited authors. The chapters are written in the format of a review article.

The online series is divided into two parts. The current edition contains symposium series books published in 2009; separate volumes will be published in subsequent years. The archives contain symposium series books published between 1974 and 2008 as well as the complete ACS Advances in Chemistry series, published between 1950 and 1998.

These online resources will be hosted on the same website as the society’s journals. The search tool on the site now returns results from both the book series and the journals. And “related content” recommendations associated with all published content point to material from the book series and to journal articles.

Researchers can purchase individual chapters on a pay-per-view basis for $30 per chapter. Institutional customers can purchase a license to access the archives, the current series, or both, at a significant discount compared with the print series. Institutions can also purchase individual titles at a price comparable to print. Print copies of the symposium series will continue to be produced and sold by ACS’s print partner, Oxford University Press.

Additional information may be obtained by contacting ACS Publications at

“Today’s current demand isn’t what we’re excited about,” concedes Justin Barreto, digital acquisition manager with MBS Textbook Exchange, in Columbia, Mo., which operates the online e-book store “The increase in demand over the past three or four years is the exciting part. Every single month, compared with the previous year’s month, we’ve seen an increase in sales.”

In the recent past, students and professors might have been put off by the perception that “an e-textbook was just a scanned PDF of the original book,” Barreto says. But now, he explains, “people are starting to realize there are all these other features incorporated into the e-book that add value.”

Those attributes vary from book to book and also depend on the device used to read the book. They include the ability to highlight sections of text for later review and to make notes that can be saved in the e-book. Students can also use social-networking tools to share those notes with others in class who have the e-book. They can search for a keyword in the book or right-click on the term to research the concept further on the Web. Some books incorporate videos or animations, which can help students “who rely upon the visual context for learning,” notes James L. Ellenson, adjunct associate professor of chemistry at North Carolina Central University (NCCU). And some books provide interactive help to guide students as they try to answer homework problems.

A multitude of chemistry textbooks are available in a digital format. They include “Basic Concepts of Chemistry,” by Leo J. Malone and Theodore Dolter; “Chemistry in Context,” by Lucy Pryde Eubanks, Catherine H. Middlecamp, Carl E. Heltzel, and Steven W. Keller; and “Organic Chemistry,” by Janice G. Smith.

Demand for digital textbooks developed first in distance-learning schools, Barreto says. “The institution would adopt the e-book because they didn’t want to deal with shipping the books,” he says. “But now we’re seeing more four-year institutions take advantage of e-textbooks,” driven by greater awareness of a digital alternative, the increasing popularity of handheld e-book readers, and the environmental movement.

Handheld readers such as Amazon’s Kindle or Sony’s Reader Digital Book might make consumers more comfortable with the concept of using a digital book, but such devices are best suited to reading something like a novel, Barreto says.

For reading a digital textbook, his company has learned that the best device is a personal desktop computer or a laptop. Students have told MBS they would otherwise need to have multiple Kindles on hand so they could refer to more than one book at once. And a computer is more useful for students who want to use a word-processing program or search the Web at the same time they’re using an e-textbook. Furthermore, PCs render color, and the Kindle and Sony’s e-book reader don’t.

Reports from academics who spoke with C&EN indicate that digital textbooks have met with a mixed reception from students.

Last fall, Middlecamp, a textbook author and faculty associate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, met with student representatives from her general chemistry course for nonmajors to consider the relative merits of the print and digital versions of “Chemistry in Context,” which is developed by the American Chemical Society and published by McGraw-Hill.

“The students discussed factors such as cost, ease of use, and ability to sell back the book,” recalls Middlecamp, who is one of the book’s authors. “They soon came to the consensus that they should have the choice of either” a print or digital version. This fall, for the first time, Middlecamp plans to offer her students both options.

“Some students don’t like the electronic format,” Ellenson notes. “Many people prefer to read a book by holding it and physically touching it.” He allows his students to decide whether they want to use just the print version or both the print and electronic versions of “Chemistry: The Practical Science,” by Paul Kelter, Michael Mosher, and Andrew Scott.

Ellenson wants to provide maximum flexibility to students at NCCU, a historically minority institution. “I think we need to focus on the diverse learning styles of students,” he says.

“We’re finding that the use of hardbound text is on the wane,” he adds. But that trend doesn’t necessarily imply that students are transitioning to the electronic edition. In fact, many “students are not purchasing the textbook” at all, Ellenson says. “Even if they do, they often are not reading the material.” He attributes that neglect to students’ short attention spans and their lack of an environment conducive to reading quietly and focusing on the material. Ellenson says he’s heard similar stories about a decline in textbook usage from faculty at many other institutions.

Students who do commit to buying digital textbooks will find they come in a variety of formats. Each publisher sets its own digital-rights-management policies, which dictate whether an e-book’s contents can be printed and whether access to the book ever expires. “Some publishers let you print the full book, and it never expires,” Barreto says. Others restrict printing. Some sell a subscription that gives students temporary online access to a book for terms such as 180 days for a lower price than for permanent access. Other publishers permit customers to download the digital book file to a computer or e-book reading device.

PCs Work Best
Credit: MBS Textbook Exchange
Students say it’s easier to read a digital textbook on a personal computer than on a dedicated e-book reading device.
Credit: MBS Textbook Exchange
Students say it’s easier to read a digital textbook on a personal computer than on a dedicated e-book reading device.

College students can buy digital textbooks online at a publisher’s website or through digital stores such as CourseSmart,,, VitalSource, or Amazon’s Kindle Store. They can also purchase them by buying a card at a campus bookstore and then typing in a code from that card on the vendor’s website, which will then allow them to view or download the e-book. Some vendors, including, offer individual digital chapters for sale. For instance, a single chapter of “Biochemistry” by Mary K. Campbell and Shawn O. Farrell goes for $6.99. Access to the entire e-book costs $105.49 for six months or $136.99 for two years. The print version of the textbook sells for $178.99.

Digital textbooks can reduce students’ expenses because prices typically fall between that of a used and new print version of the book, according to Barreto. Unlike a used print book, however, a digital book can’t be sold back to the bookstore.

The price of textbooks is a sore spot with students, as well as some academics. Book prices have risen faster than inflation, says Buckley Barrett, a librarian emeritus and statewide academic senator at California State University, San Bernardino, who served on CSU’s textbook affordability task force.

Individual textbooks can cost $100 to $200, he adds, and many college students spend $1,000 per year on textbooks. That’s a considerable expense for students such as those at CSU, many of whom are first-generation residents and have low incomes, Barrett notes. CSU students are also being buffeted by rising tuition costs, which he expects to surge 20% this fall as California tries to get its enormous budget deficit under control.

In an effort to curtail the state’s expenditures, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger launched the Free Digital Textbook Initiative in May. He says the initiative is the nation’s first program to make free digital textbooks available to high school students. The state will put together a list of approved science and math digital textbooks in time for the fall term.

California isn’t alone in seeking to trim textbook costs. Even the federal government is getting involved. The House of Representatives is considering a bill (H.R. 1464) that would require federal agencies to help develop free chemistry, physics, and math college textbooks that students could download from the Web.

Free digital textbooks can already be found at sites such as Merlot, which offers a collection of online educational materials; Scribd, a service that allows users to upload and share documents, including books; or even authors’ websites.

Not all of the free digital versions of textbooks have been made available with the permission of their publishers and authors. For example, James E. House, an adjunct professor at Illinois Wesleyan University, was dismayed to learn from C&EN that a pirated digital version of his “Inorganic Chemistry” textbook was available for free on the Scribd website. Scribd removed the textbook immediately when contacted by a division of Reed Elsevier, the parent company of the book’s publisher, Elsevier.

“We have to deal with this problem quite frequently,” says Rick Williamson, Elsevier’s senior acquisitions editor for analytical chemistry. “People can be quite ingenious when it comes to taking a print copy and putting it up online.” Elsevier and other publishers are vigilant in their monitoring of the Web “to make sure that pirated versions are not left up for very long,” he says.

More Coverage

Visit C&ENtral Science to read Sophie's blog entry on July 27, 2009

Examples of legitimate “open” textbooks include Wikibook’s “Organic Chemistry,” which has been written by more than a dozen contributors; “Biochemistry,” by Jeremy M. Berg, John L. Tymoczko, and Lubert Stryer; and the “Virtual Textbook of Organic Chemistry,” created by William Reusch.

When Reusch retired from Michigan State University’s chemistry department in 2001, he cast about for a project to occupy his time and decided to write interactive computerized problem sets for the department. He then realized he wanted users to be able see additional information if they wanted to know more about a particular topic, so he began writing a virtual text, “and that just kept growing,” he says. In fact, he’s still working on it, revising chapters when they need to be updated.

The virtual book includes links to more advanced treatments of concepts, interactive components such as molecular models that can be moved, and a drawing program for answering problems.

The textbook can be accessed through Michigan State’s chemistry department website. In association with Great River Technologies, a Dubuque, Iowa, education technology company, Reusch has also reworked the material to create a different digital version of the text that more closely resembles a conventional textbook. The company will sell that version, paired with some additional services for instructors, for about $40.

For now, publishers and educators believe that digital and print options will coexist for a while.

“The most important thing is for educators to get a handle on how to teach the students of the 21st century,” NCCU’s Ellenson says. “For some people you’ve got to have books; for some people the e-books are going to work better. No single solution, in my mind, is appropriate for the diversity that is present in our classrooms today.”


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