17 February 2006

The Economics of Open Access Books

I've written before about open access books; but such is my sad state of excitement when I come across good examples, I feel obliged to pass on another one. The home page for the book Introductory Economic Analysis by R. Preston McAfee declares itself to be "the open source introduction to microeconomics" no less, and the online blurb explains why, and also offers some interesting thoughts on the economics of academic book publishing:

Why open source? Academics do an enormous amount of work editing journals and writing articles and now publishers have broken an implicit contract with academics, in which we gave our time and they weren't too greedy. Sometimes articles cost $20 to download, and principles books regularly sell for over $100. They issue new editions frequently to kill off the used book market, and the rapidity of new editions contributes to errors and bloat. Moreover, textbooks have gotten dumb and dumber as publishers seek to satisfy the student who prefers to learn nothing. Many have gotten so dumb ("simplified") so as to be simply incorrect. And they want $100 for this schlock? Where is the attempt to show the students what economics is actually about, and how it actually works? Why aren't we trying to teach the students more, rather than less?

(This closely mirrors Linus' own feelings about the high cost and low quality of proprietary software.)

As a consequence of this unholy alliance of greed and shoddiness, McAfee suggests:

The publishers are vulnerable to an open source project: rather than criticize the text, we will be better off picking and choosing from a free set of materials. Many of us write our own notes for the course anyway and just assign a book to give the students an alternate approach. How much nicer if in addition that "for further reading" book is free.

Introductory Economic Analysis is truly open access, as the author explains: "You are free to use any subset of this work provided you don't charge for it, and you make any additions or improvements to it available under the same terms." To be precise, it is published under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 licence. Although I've only just started working through the text, I can heartily recommend it for its pervasive clarity and gentle wit - not qualities that you normally associate with economics textbooks.

As well as for the generous gift of the book itself, I'm also grateful to McAfee for the link he gives to a site that's new to me, called The Assayer, which describes itself as "the web's largest catalog of free books." It turns out the vast majority of these are in the fields of science, maths and computing. It's not a huge collection, but since it includes titles as fine as McAfee's, things are clearly looking up in the world of open access books.

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