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Education

Editorial: Back to school means hitting the textbooks

by Bibiana Campos Seijo
September 12, 2022 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 100, Issue 32

 

An illustration of a scientist quickly walking, with their front arm pointing confidently toward a laboratory and their back arm swinging in front of a community college.
Credit: Mike Reddy

It’s back-to-school time. Give or take 1 week, Labor Day marks the end of the holidays and the beginning of the academic year for many schools across the US. The same applies to colleges and universities—most welcome undergraduates during the last week of August or the first week of September.

Returning to school after the summer hiatus requires adjustment to a fixed schedule. For those starting at new institutions, it means getting acquainted with an unfamiliar environment—a new city, a new campus, new friends and colleagues. It also signals a return to homework, coursework, and tests.

Growing up, I recall this time as exciting. I looked forward to meeting new people. And—I’m sure I’m not alone in this—to acquiring new textbooks.

I’ve always loved books, and textbooks are no less appealing. However, as a student in receipt of a governmental grant to cover accommodation, food, fees, and other bills, there wasn’t a lot left over for extras such as textbooks. Renting was not an option, and it was early days for Amazon, which at the time was nothing more than a US start-up with big ambitions. And textbooks were not cheap. I recall saving to buy Cotton and Wilkinson’s Advanced Inorganic Chemistry. I don’t remember how much it cost at the time, but if I were to buy the Spanish edition (soft cover) today, it would set me back around $260, according to a quick Amazon search.

That made it especially interesting to hear about John McMurry’s decision to part ways with his publisher of many years and to sell the rights of his bestseller Organic Chemistry to a nonprofit dedicated to developing open education resources. Through the agreement, McMurry relinquishes any royalties for forthcoming editions of the book in favor of a one-off licensing fee that he is donating to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation in memory of his son, who sadly died from the disease in 2019.

Students can now download the digital version of the book—“one of the most popular organic textbooks in the world,” according to Inside Higher Ed—and the accompanying manual for free. Previously, it would have cost them around $100.

This aspect of the open-access movement—that is, making textbooks free to download—is less frequently discussed but could have significant ramifications when it comes to the affordability of textbooks and access to educational materials by students from lower-income backgrounds. It also has implications for the business model around textbooks and whether a transition from royalties to single licensing-right fees may be beneficial for authors.

Successful academic authors like McMurry likely sell enough books to make a considerable income from royalties. But not every textbook becomes a bestseller. For authors whose books have moderate sales, the single-fee model may be better.

I wonder how likely the movement for open-access educational resources is to stick. And whether it will affect the perception of quality of free materials—specifically, the idea that if something is free, it must be less valuable, which is certainly not the case for Organic Chemistry. But quality is a concern, which makes the argument around fair compensation even more important if publishers of open education resources are to succeed at attracting high-quality authors.

Because it is back-to-school time, in this issue of C&EN we have included two related features. The first one talks about the rising popularity of apprenticeships, a training model that has been successful in European countries such as Germany and the UK and is now expanding to the US (see page 20).

The second one highlights the important work that community colleges are doing to train people for jobs in chemistry-related fields (see page 24). Enjoy!

Views expressed on this page are those of the author and not necessarily those of ACS.

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