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Undergraduate Education

Open-access chemistry textbooks gain popularity

Professors increasingly adopt free resources, such as LibreTexts, with an eye toward affordability for students

by Celia Henry Arnaud
March 18, 2019 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 97, Issue 11


A cartoon showing a person surrounded by books looking at a large screen representing open-access chemistry that says, "Welcome to your chemistry library."
Credit: C&EN/Shutterstock

For years, people have complained about the cost of college textbooks. And science textbooks are some of the most expensive. The list prices for hardcover versions from sellers like Amazon are typically $120–$150, sometimes even more. Renting books or buying online access to them brings the price down, but those options are still budget busters for some students.

James V. Koch, professor of economics emeritus and president emeritus of Old Dominion University, has studied the college textbook market. In his 2013 report Turning the Page, published by the Lumina Foundation, he found that about 30% of students don’t buy textbooks at all. They are borrowing them or going without. And of the students who do buy a textbook, only one-third are buying new textbooks.

As an alternative to those high prices, open-access textbooks—more properly called open educational resources (OERs)—have been making inroads. OERs are exactly what they sound like: online materials that are available for instructors to use in their classrooms, usually at no cost to their students. They are frequently published under licenses, such as the Creative Commons licenses, that allow the materials to be freely used and reused.

OERs of various sorts have been around for more than 20 years. For example, the American Chemical Society’s Division of Chemical Education’s Committee on Computers in Chemical Education has been running intercollegiate online chemistry courses containing open-access content since 1996. (ACS also publishes C&EN.) And the Massachusetts Institute of Technology launched its OpenCourseWare initiative in 2000, which made materials from all of the university’s courses freely available on the internet. The number and quality of the materials continue to improve. For professors concerned about affordability for their students, making the leap to OERs is something that more of them are increasingly willing to do.

In October 2018, the US Department of Education gave LibreTexts, an OER portal based at the University of California, Davis, a $4.9 million grant to develop free, open textbooks in targeted subjects, including chemistry. The goal for the chemistry materials is to develop resources that will enable schools to offer an ACS-approved bachelor’s degree with zero cost for textbooks. ACS evaluates programs to determine whether they meet the guidelines established by the society’s Committee on Professional Training. The consortium developing LibreTexts includes 11 institutions beyond UC Davis, plus the California State University system. The consortium and its predecessor, ChemWiki, previously received funding from the US National Science Foundation.

Delmar Larsen, a chemistry professor at UC Davis who heads the LibreTexts consortium, started ChemWiki 11 years ago in response to a disappointing experience with an expensive chemistry textbook.

“I taught an upper-division physical-chemistry-for-life-sciences class using a textbook by a very famous chemistry textbook author. It was a first-edition book, and it was much poorer than I thought it was when I had approved it. It was about $200,” Larsen remembers. Because of the experience, “I felt with typical assistant professor–level hubris, ‘Oh, I can do something better.’ ”

Larsen took the approach of crowdsourcing the material about physical chemistry for life sciences, Wikipedia-style. For the first several years, the students themselves wrote much of the content under the supervision of professors and teaching assistants.

“It became clear that while it would work, it would converge very slowly,” Larsen says. “It got to the stage where students were breaking content almost as much as they were building or fixing content.” That is, the students were making incorrect edits. “We needed to look at different mechanisms.”

The project started harvesting—with permission—existing open content from the web. And it expanded, first to collecting materials in other areas of chemistry. Then it moved beyond chemistry to biology, geology, and math, morphing from ChemWiki to LibreTexts. Each subject is organized as its own library. LibreTexts now has 12 libraries and counting.

Much of the materials in LibreTexts are so-called textbook maps. These maps follow the outline of commercially available textbooks but include different text and examples. The library also includes texts from other OER providers, such as OpenStax, an initiative based at Rice University.

    LibreTexts by the numbers


    The year LibreTexts’ predecessor, ChemWiki, was established. As ChemWiki expanded beyond chemistry, it morphed into LibreTexts.


    Chemistry textbooks currently available on LibreTexts


    Pages of chemistry materials available on LibreTexts

    >283 million

    Chemistry page views by LibreTexts users since 2008


    Source: LibreTexts.
    Note: LibreTexts does not require users to sign up for an account to access materials, so the provider tracks use with web analytics.

    OpenStax by the numbers


    The year OpenStax was established from its predecessor, Connexions


    Chemistry textbooks currently available on OpenStax


    Chemistry courses using OpenStax during the 2018–19 school year


    Chemistry students using OpenStax during the 2018–19 school year

    Source: OpenStax.
    Note: OpenStax does not require users to sign up for an account to access materials; however, many do, so the numbers shown here are estimates based on these analytics.


Professors who want to use LibreTexts can use the existing materials as is, or they can mix and match the various textbooks available to make their own. The consortium currently contains 61 chemistry textbooks, 58 of which are in English and 3 of which are in Spanish.

Brett McCollum, a chemistry professor at Mount Royal University, in Canada, adopted LibreTexts for one section of his general-chemistry class in 2015. After a successful trial run, his department adopted it for all sections of both semesters of general chemistry the following year.

“There were a number of students who couldn’t afford the textbook,” McCollum says. “But there were even more students who simply wouldn’t buy the textbook.”

Students would flatter McCollum and tell him that he was such a good teacher that they didn’t need the book. But he knew that wasn’t true.

His lectures couldn’t provide the depth of information that was in the book, he says. “I had to change what I did in the classroom to facilitate reading.”

Rather than linking to existing LibreTexts pages, McCollum replicates those pages on his own course pages within LibreTexts and edits them to fit the focus of his class. “Having that freedom to tailor the book was really valuable to me,” he says.

He warns that making LibreTexts fit a particular class takes time to prepare. “It’s not something I recommend someone do a week before the semester begins,” McCollum says. “You need to make your plan two months before your semester begins to identify the content you want, begin organizing it in the manner you want, and identify if there’s something missing.”

McCollum incorporated LibreTexts as part of what he calls a “text-centric flip.” For many so-called flipped classes, professors post short videos of lectures that students watch as homework before class. Then in class, they engage with the content through quizzes, discussions, and other activities. McCollum instead incorporates materials from LibreTexts in slide presentations that students must view before class. His class period starts with “reading circles” in which students discuss the assigned reading.

McCollum envisions a future with most OER development funded by governments. In Canada, most provinces already have an OER initiative, he says. “Canada sees this as an important path forward for equity and for enabling students from diverse backgrounds to engage more fully in higher education,” McCollum says. “We have a vision of sharing nationally and internationally” the materials from the OER initiatives.

Some OER content started out as commercial textbooks. Modern Analytical Chemistry by David Harvey of DePauw University is a case in point. That text was published by McGraw-Hill in 1999.

“The textbook market is hard to crack,” Harvey says. A couple of years after the textbook came out, McGraw-Hill decided not to do a second edition, Harvey says. The company transferred copyright back to him so he could take the text to another publisher. Instead of doing that, he decided to make it freely available as a PDF.

There were a number of students who couldn’t afford the textbook. But there were even more students who simply wouldn’t buy the textbook.
Brett McCollum, chemistry professor, Mount Royal University

The book is now included in LibreTexts. And Harvey is creating related materials to accompany it.

OpenStax is more like a commercial publisher. It commissions authors to write textbooks. OpenStax’s predecessor, Connexions, was launched in 1999 as a platform for instructors to share their own materials. In 2012, OpenStax launched with free, peer-reviewed, openly licensed textbooks aimed at high-enrollment introductory courses. OpenStax has two chemistry texts, Chemistry and Chemistry: Atoms First, both of which are intended for general-chemistry classes. OpenStax’s chemistry texts are being used this year in more than 1,000 courses enrolling over 228,000 students, says David Harris, editor in chief of the OER provider. But that number could underestimate the actual use because students don’t need an account to access the material.

Features that commercial publishers offer, like peer review and professional illustrations, work well for open-access materials too, Harris says. “OpenStax content development is really no different from a traditional publisher.”

Paul Flowers of the University of North Carolina at Pembroke is the lead author for Chemistry. He first heard of OpenStax when one of his physics colleagues—he’s in a joint department of chemistry and physics—adopted its physics textbook. But a chemistry textbook wasn’t yet available at the time. When the vendor that manages contracts for writing OpenStax books contacted him, Flowers jumped at the chance. The book was published in 2015, and a second edition was recently released.

One thing that differentiates OpenStax from commercial publishing is the OER provider doesn’t need to constantly release new editions of its books to keep ahead of a used-book market. OpenStax books are available free to students electronically or for a nominal cost if a student prefers to have a printed version.

“At OpenStax, we don’t revise books that often because the core content doesn’t change that much,” Harris says.

OpenStax has so far focused on introductory textbooks. “When we originally conceived of this, we were focusing on gen-ed requirements,” Harris says. “As we’ve gone on this journey, we’ve recognized that the need to have access to high-quality content goes well beyond general-education courses.” OpenStax wants to develop resources for upper-level courses. “We’re pursuing grants to expand our catalog deeply in different disciplines,” Harris says.


Upper-level courses are also where LibreTexts is weakest. The nearly $5 million US Department of Education grant will help pay for developing and testing those materials.

Meanwhile, LibreTexts will also put that money toward generating a zero-cost chemistry curriculum for bachelor’s programs. The Department of Chemistry at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock will help the consortium test-drive its materials.

“We’re not going to develop the whole curriculum in one year and have it ready for students,” says Brian Berry, head of UA Little Rock’s Department of Chemistry. Instead, the department will start with general chemistry and roll out the new materials as the first cohort of students progresses through the program.

The plan at UA Little Rock is to extend the adoption of LibreTexts beyond chemistry courses to other classes that chemistry majors take, including math and physics. When students get to a part of a chemistry class that draws on something they learned in physics or calculus, the online text can link to the relevant material. “I envision this as one large, integrated textbook,” Berry says.

Affordability is a driving factor at UA Little Rock. “A lot of our students are from underserved populations,” Berry says. “Research has shown that open educational resources are particularly valuable for underserved populations, for part-time students, for students who qualify for Pell Grants. That’s kind of the bread and butter of what our institution does. We think the potential benefit to our students is just too great not to pursue.” (Pell Grants are subsidies from the US federal government for students with high financial need.)

Robert E. Belford, a chemistry professor at UA Little Rock, will be participating in the adoption of LibreTexts. But he was an advocate for OERs long before he heard of ChemWiki or LibreTexts. Belford is working to bring OERs to teachers and students in low-resource settings. He’s developing an “Internet in a Box” that includes LibreTexts. He sets up an inexpensive computer called a Raspberry Pi as an internet hot spot and loads the computer with a variety of OERs, including LibreTexts. Because the device is designed to work without an internet connection, the version of LibreTexts is a static one that reflects the contents as of when it was downloaded. “Ideally, we could set it up where the students pick up one of these boxes, and they’ve got their entire degree in a box,” Belford says.

Some commercial publishers are getting in on OERs too. For example, Cengage launched its own OER resource, OpenNow, in 2017. “Cengage is proud to support and be a part of the OER movement to create better, more accessible, and affordable teaching and learning materials,” says Kristina Massari, a company spokesperson.

The materials in OpenNow include content from other OER sources in addition to new content and previously copyrighted material from Cengage. OpenNow currently has materials for 14 courses, including general chemistry. Although not free for students, it costs significantly less—$30 per student per course—than traditional print and electronic materials.

For the noncommercial providers, Koch, the expert at Old Dominion University who has studied college textbooks, wonders whether the OER model is sustainable over the long haul. “They’re all grant funded, and that’s nice. But eventually that particular sustenance is going to run out,” he says. “Most of them have not developed a reliable business model. They haven’t found a way to make money sufficient that they can pay people to develop materials over a long period of time.”

So even as OERs start to take hold, throwing the gates open for students and educators everywhere to access typically costly educational materials, there’s still room for improvement.


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