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Are free high-quality textbooks a reality? A look at OpenStax college

If you’re a student, or young enough to remember what being a student was like, you know how expensive textbooks are. For example, the paperback version of Gazzaniga’s Cognitive Neuroscience sells for €57 on Amazon. The hardcover version will even set you back €120. It’s a beautiful book, to be sure, but practically speaking it’s mostly bought by students who only use it for a single course. After the course, the book fades to black on a dusty bookshelf, together with other pricey textbooks.

A dusty bookshelf. (Source: The Guardian)

There is a limited trade in second-hand textbooks, but publishers prevent this trade from blossoming by frequently releasing new editions, which are always structured a bit differently from their predecessors. Different page numbering, different paragraphs, etc. Just differently enough, of course, so that students practically have to have the same edition as their professor, who generally has the latest. Libraries are also of little use, because they have at most a handful of copies of each textbook. Not nearly enough for all students.

Meet OpenStax college, a nonprofit organization that aims to publish high-quality textbooks under an open-access license. This means that you can get the books for free in a digital format–as PDF, E-Book, or viewed on-line. Interestingly, OpenStax also provides printed copies, which are sold at cost. I haven’t gotten my hands on a printed copy yet, but the digital versions are impressive. Are they something special? No, basically they are just ordinary high-quality textbooks. But free.

No textbook is completely without illustrations. OpenStax’s ‘Anatomy and Psychology’ contains lots of them.

OpenStax focuses on introductory textbooks, because these are used the most. They don’t offer any specialized textbooks, at least not for the moment. Currently, their offerings cover physics, sociology, biology, statistics, history, and economics. Two textbooks are particularly relevant for psychologists and neuroscientists. Statistics provides a gentle introduction to t-tests, ANOVAs, linear regression, etc. Anatomy and Physiology contains an elaborate description of the human nervous system (see the illustrations above). And make no mistake, these are serious books. The PDF version of Anatomy and Physiology counts 1335 (!) pages.

A Psychology textbook is listed as ‘Coming soon Winter (Dec) 2014’. So far, OpenStax has delivered on its promises, so I have good hopes that this book will appear on schedule.

Free textbooks are a good way to replenish your starving piggy bank! (Source: