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why not give it away for free? a response to michael bishop on cost and content

I recently announced “Sociology Experiment” on the blog and on Twitter. The idea is simple. A team would write an intro text book and make it available for a whopping $1 per chapter. Since the book only has $14 chapters, no student would ever pay more than $14 for the course. Now that’s a bargain!

On Facebook, Michael Bishop asked a question – why not give it away for free? A few short notes before I give a more developed answer. First, I welcome anyone who wants to put out their own free book. It is something that someone should definitely try. Second, Michael isn’t crazy. A lot of content and software is open source and free to the public – Wikipedia, R, Python, Open Culture, GitHub, and so forth.

Now, let me give an answer for why a sociology textbook might not be best served by a free, open source model. What are the main reasons that someone would contribute to an open source project? Why would someone put in serious labor for free? Here are the big ones:

  1. Love of the subject – Example: You love chess, so you add your knowledge to wiki.
  2. Future job prospects – Example: Many programmers contribute to share ware and open source because employers may see it as a sign of skill.
  3. Small contribution – Example: You contribute a few sentences to a Wikipedia entry and improve it.
  4. Small marginal cost – Example: Adding your contribution to an open source project is pretty easy because you’ve already done most of the work. If, say, you have already spent a lot of time on a tool for quickly searching Reddit, why not produce an open source one and get some credit?

Here is why these incentives don’t apply in much text book writing, in my opinion.

  1. There is no love for writing textbooks or course materials. Few people do it for fun.
  2. Academic don’t get rewarded – in terms of jobs or raises – for writing textbooks. In fact, it is the sort of activity that will probably set you back.
  3. Writing a text book that lots of people will enjoy and use is, in absolute terms, a very big investment of time. It will absolutely displace your regular work.
  4. Even writing a single chapter requires a lot of time and it is rarely the byproduct of some other project. The marginal cost is large.

Finally, on a philosophical level, I am not against free content. I think it’s lovely. But when some of the finest scholars set out to write a textbook for the discipline, they have earned their reward. If you use what they make, give them money! Decency requires nothing less.

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Written by fabiorojas

May 13, 2019 at 12:16 am

Posted in uncategorized

2 Responses

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  1. I feel like the real decency would be for the discipline to reward faculty for writing textbooks instead of putting a barrier to entry (however admittedly slight it is in this case) in front of students. Let the people with the power and resources be the ones to bear the costs, in my humble opinion.

    Like

    Justin

    May 15, 2019 at 4:40 pm

  2. @justin: It’s a fair point. But at the end of the day, someone has to be paid to do it. And in this way, the authors get the income – not a text book publisher or college administrator. It’s a very low cost as well – so it’s win/win.

    Liked by 1 person

    fabiorojas

    May 16, 2019 at 5:19 pm


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