Innovation centers seek to address high textbook prices

Feb. 10, 2012, 2:06 a.m.

While spending hundreds of dollars on textbooks and course readers written by the professors teaching the related courses is a common experience for Stanford students, Stanford research and innovation labs are working on projects to reduce course material costs by addressing copyright licensing.


Stanford’s CodeX, also known as the Stanford Center for Legal Informatics, and MediaX have been working on a “Print on Demand” system — a new way to lower prices for course materials.


“Our University pays several million dollars to get access for our students to certain materials, and frequently when professors did course readers, they didn’t check what the University had rights to,” said Roland Vogl, project director of Stanford Intellectual Property Exchange (SIPX). “We built a system that automates many of those processes and also takes into account the rights the student already has under the library’s permission.”


During the 2011 spring quarter, Print on Demand was used to print course readers for three Stanford classes. Students paid up to 78 percent less for the course readers produced by this new system.


SIPX is currently developing a “Publish on Demand” system, in which it “will integrate with the intranet learning management system used at Stanford to distribute electronic course materials, as well as explore mobile distribution opportunities,” according to its website.


Overall, the Stanford community is clearly looking for cheaper ways for professors to compile and develop course materials through projects such as SIPX and digital coursereaders.


Professors do not usually have any say in the prices of the books they write, even if the materials are published by Stanford University Press, economics professor John Taylor said in an email to The Daily.

“As with any book, textbook prices are determined by cost of physical production, payments to editors, writers, marketing and sales representatives, bookstore (or online) margins and publisher profits,” Taylor wrote. “In addition many textbooks are accompanied by supplements: test-banks, instructors’ manuals, course management services, web pages, slides, etc., which add to the cost.”


Taylor authored the current textbook used to instruct Economics 1A. The textbook  costs $270 at the Stanford Bookstore.


According to computer science professor Eric Roberts — author of Stanford’s CS 106A: Programming Methodology textbook, which the Stanford Bookstore sells for $127 new and $92.50 used — there are three main sources of cost for course readers: production, permissions and bookstore revenue. Roberts will teach CS 106A this spring.


“For most courses, the largest share is permissions,” Roberts said. “We have to pay copyright laws. To put together a reader, you have to get permission to use any of the materials you have in the reader. Those permission costs vary. We’re very fortunate here. The bookstore does the research for us and actually has standing agreements with a number of the major publishers.”


Particular publishers have standard page costs that make permission costs easy to compute, but copyright fees are not constant for all materials.


For instance, Roberts said he taught a poetry class last year with significantly fewer pages than the typical course reader, but a notably greater price.


Production costs include whatever the bookstore and subcontractors need in order to photocopy the material. Bookstore revenue is the percentage of sales that the private company on campus is compensated.


Roberts is currently working to publish the CS 106B course reader online. The material is also available for sale in the bookstore, where it costs $64.25, and Roberts encourages students to buy it.


“Print copies are still enormously helpful,” he said. “People will come to office hours with the reader all marked up with lots of highlighter and little arrows and post-its because it helps them.”


Additionally, a print copy of the CS 106B course reader is also advantageous because it is permitted during tests, while online sources are not, Roberts said.


When asked why he has elected to offer the reader online, Roberts responded that some people simply like having a digital copy. However, some students would also choose digital copies if costs were significantly lower or nonexistent, Roberts said.


Roberts acknowledges it is a lot more common than 25 years ago to put course materials online simply because technology has advanced. Nonetheless, with this progress, there have been issues with faculty posting copyrighted materials on the Internet.


“It helps prices a little, but it’s not the right thing to circumvent those rights,” Roberts said. “There’s a big push in the Internet age for free material, but I’ve written some books, and they take an enormous amount of time. I’ve put three years of work into this current one, and the publishers put time into this project too. If you expect all that to happen for free, the quality will go down.”


Regardless, students still look for ways to decrease the prices they pay for course materials.


The seventh edition of Taylor’s Principles of Economics, co-written with Akila Weerapana of Wellesley College, was released for purchase in time for the start of the 2012 winter quarter.


“Most new modern introductory textbooks in economics, whether used at Stanford and other universities, are comparable in price,” Taylor said, concerning the price of his textbook. “Savings are available from using used books or older editions. Online purchases can also have a lower price.”


“Prices have risen substantially in the past twenty years,” Taylor said. “I think that competition from online alternatives to physical texts are going to drive down the price of texts in the future. I hope so.”

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