The New York Times Catches Up on Online Textbooks

The New York Times finally catches up on the subject of online textbooks, many of which are free:

It is that fact that can suddenly turn the good guys into bad guys, especially when the prices they charge are compared with generic drugs or ordinary books. A final similarity, in the words of R. Preston McAfee, an economics professor at Cal Tech, is that both textbook publishers and drug makers benefit from the problem of “moral hazards” — that is, the doctor who prescribes medication and the professor who requires a textbook don’t have to bear the cost and thus usually don’t think twice about it.

“The person who pays for the book, the parent or the student, doesn’t choose it,” he said. “There is this sort of creep. It’s always O.K. to add $5.”

In protest of what he says are textbooks’ intolerably high prices — and the dumbing down of their content to appeal to the widest possible market — Professor McAfee has put his introductory economics textbook online free. He says he most likely could have earned a $100,000 advance on the book had he gone the traditional publishing route, and it would have had a list price approaching $200.

“This market is not working very well — except for the shareholders in the textbook publishers,” he said. “We have lots of knowledge, but we are not getting it out.”

So where have these guys been?

Last year my site vulcanhammer.net–which offers free, downloadable books for students, academics and practicioners in the geotechnical and marine engineering and construction industries–celebrated its tenth anniversary.  I can’t tell you how many reference books (to say nothing of the free online textbook Soil Mechanics by the Dutch academic Arnold Verruijt) that have gone around the world.  And if you think textbook expense is a problem here in the U.S., just think of what a challenge it is in poorer places.

Read the reviews–and a detailed explanation of my rationale–for yourself. It’s great to teach people how to fish (or at least how to keep the dock in place!)  And there’s reasonably priced in print stuff too.

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