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Free and Open Textbooks? No, We Really Mean It This Time.

  • Published10 Dec 2012
  • Author Anita Bandrowski

It would have been easy to miss an important news story as it happened shortly before the SFN meeting: Gov. Brown (California) signed into law a program that will create 50 lower division textbooks and a new type library that will house them.

electronic book held in hands

Many people are not currently terribly excited about digital textbooks for several key reasons: most textbooks can only be paged through (no index), this paging takes quite a long time, they are often available to users for a defined period of time, there is often no possibility to make notes/highlights on the text and of course they are still relatively expensive. These are all very good reasons to be against using digital texts and possibly the major reasons that they have largely not fulfilled the promise of e-texts.

Most people will see the open and free aspect of these 50 books and may be excited about solving the cost/time-of-use issues, but the text mining / informatics community finds something else quite exciting. The textbook data will be available via xml and will be covered under the Creative Commons license. This means that much of the promise of electronic textbooks such as linking to additional material like definitions of evolving concepts such as GABAergic neuron in line, opening demos or videos from prominent members of the scientific community can be done by anyone not just the publisher of the textbook.

Conventional e-texts that are covered by restrictive licenses disallow automated text-mining agents created by various people in academia to find things in the text and link by any group other than the publisher (conversely, this also means that any data you publish covered by a ‘non-commercial only’ license can’t be freely used and linked by commercial entities like publishers), but with these open texts the promise of e-books is renewed. Will many groups access the text, recognize ‘entities’ within the ‘discourse’ to learn and link to both materials and fulfill the promise of a real ‘living text book’? Hope so.



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