Study Finds Open Source Textbooks as Effective as Commercial

16 November 2015

From The Digital Reader:

A recent study has found that college students who used open educational resources (OER) in their undergraduate courses performed as well or better than those assigned commercial textbooks, even though they were also taking a heavier course load.

Campus Technology reports that researchers at Brigham Young University worked with the Michigan State Department of Education and Lumen Learning, a not-for-profit focused on the use of open courseware, to run a massive field test which covered over 16,000 college students enrolled in 15 different undergraduate courses at ten colleges and universities around the US.

The study involved 5,000 students who used open source textbooks as well as a group of more than 11,000 students who served as a control group and used commercially available textbooks. The study focused on five measures of student success: course completion, final grade, final grade of C- or higher, course load during the study, and course load in the following semester.

According to CT, the OER textbooks proved the equal of commercially published textbooks:

In the area of course completion, the researchers found “almost no significant differences” between the two groups with a couple of exceptions. In Business 110 and Biology 111 students in the OER group showed higher rates of completion than students in the control. For example, in the business class, 21 percent of commercial textbook users withdrew; in the OER group only six percent withdrew.

In the area of student achievement (passing with a C- or better grade), the outcome was mixed. In nine courses researchers saw no significant differences. In five courses, the OER users were more likely to pass the course than those in the control group. In one course, Business 110, students in the control group surpassed students using OER.

The same kind of mix surfaced in course grades. In 10 courses, researchers found no significant difference. In four courses OER students achieved higher grades; in one course, Business 110, students using commercial textbooks did better.

But wait, it gets better. The researchers also noted that students in the test group tended to carry a heavier course load than students in the control group.

. . . .

In short, the money the students were saving on textbooks was immediately used to pay the tuition for additional courses which the students went on to finish with equal or better grades than if they had been required to use commercial textbooks.

In part that is due to the open textbooks being of a similar quality, but also that students stuck with the commercial textbooks often try  to complete a class without buying the textbook at all, to often negative results.

Link to the rest at The Digital Reader

PG says, at a minimum, there is no reason why any required introductory course (think Econ 101) can’t use an open source textbook identical to the one used the previous year. The basics just don’t change that often. If something does change, it’s not likely to be in the core foundation principles of a given field of study.

Kudos to BYU and Michigan State. PG proposes that any professor who wants to use a textbook that’s not open source must justify the use of the book to the Dean of whatever school the class falls under plus insert a prominent warning about the high expense of the book in the course description.

PG still remembers the feeling of being ripped off at the student bookstore.

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Language of Protest

2 November 2015

From Inside Higher Ed:

All six editors and all 31 editorial board members of Lingua, one of the top journals in linguistics, last week resigned to protest Elsevier’s policies on pricing and its refusal to convert the journal to an open-access publication that would be free online. As soon as January, when the departing editors’ noncompete contracts expire, they plan to start a new open-access journal to be called Glossa.

The editors and editorial board members quit, they say, after telling Elsevier of the frustrations of libraries reporting that they could not afford to subscribe to the journal and in some cases couldn’t even figure out what it would cost to subscribe. Prices quoted on the Elsevier website suggest that an academic library in the United States with a total student and faculty full-time equivalent number of around 10,000 would pay $2,211 for shared online access, and $1,966 for a print copy.

. . . .

Johan Rooryck, executive editor of the journal until his resignation takes effect at the end of the year, said in an interview that when he started his editorship in 1998, “I could have told you to the cent what the journal cost,” and that it was much more affordable. Now, he said, single subscriptions are so expensive that it is “unsustainable” for many libraries to subscribe. Rooryck is professor of French linguistics at Leiden University, in the Netherlands, where academic and government leaders have been sharply critical of journal prices.

Rooryck said Lingua and most journals publish work by professors whose salaries are paid directly or indirectly with public funds. So why, he asked, should access to such research be blocked?

By quitting his position, Rooryck will give up his current compensation from Elsevier, which he said is about 5,000 euros (about $5,500) a year. He said the pay is minimal for the two to three days a week he works on the journal. “I would be better off going to flip burgers in that time,” he said.

Link to the rest at Inside Higher Ed and thanks to Elizabeth for the tip.

Some time ago, PG worked for a large subsidiary of Reed Elsevier and he can assure one and all that the company’s profit margins from academic publishing are sky-high.

The Needless Complexity of Academic Writing

30 October 2015

From The Atlantic:

“Persistence is one of the great characteristics of a pitbull, and I guess owners take after their dogs,” says Annetta Cheek, the co-founder of the D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Plain Language. Cheek, an anthropologist by training who left academia in the early 1980s to work for the Federal Aviation Commission, is responsible for something few people realize exists: the 2010 Plain Writing Act.In fact, Cheek was among the first government employees to champion the use of clear, concise language. Once she retired in 2007 from the FAA and gained the freedom to lobby, she leveraged her hatred for gobbledygook to create an actual law. Take a look at recent information put out by many government agencies such as the Department of Veterans Affairs, the Department of Health and Human Services, and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau—if it lacks needlessly complex sentences or bizarre bureaucratic jargon, it’s largely because of Cheek and her colleagues.

The idea that writing should be clear, concise, and low-jargon isn’t a new one—and it isn’t limited to government agencies, of course. The problem of needlessly complex writing—sometimes referred to as an “opaque writing style”—has been explored in fields ranging from law to science. Yet in academia, unwieldy writing has become something of a protected tradition. Take this example:

The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.

That little doozy appears in Barbara Vinken’s Flaubert Postsecular: Modernity Crossed Out, published by Stanford University Press, and was recently posted to a listserv used by clear-language zealots—many of whom are highly qualified academics who are willing to call their colleagues out for being habitual offenders of opaque writing. Yet the battle to make clear and elegant prose the new status quo is far from won.

Last year, Harvard’s Steven Pinker (who’s also written about his grammar peeves for The Atlantic) authored an article for The Chronicle of Higher Education in which he used adjectives like “turgid, soggy, wooden, bloated, clumsy, obscure, unpleasant to read, and impossible to understand” to describe academic writing. In an email, Pinker told me that the reaction to his article “has been completely positive, which is not the typical reaction to articles I write, and particularly surprising given my deliberately impolite tone.”

. . . .

A nonacademic might think the campaign against opaque writing is a no-brainer; of course, researchers should want to maximize comprehension of their work. Cynics charge, however, that academics play an elitist game with their words: They want to exclude interlopers. Others say that academics have traditionally been forced to write in an opaque style to be taken seriously by the gatekeepers—academic journal editors, for example. The main reason, though, may not be as sinister or calculated. Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic and thanks to James for the tip.

PG says lawyers sometimes do the same thing in contracts. When he sees opaque language, PG automatically suspects the author is trying to hide something.

Hughes’ widow criticises Jonathan Bate biography

15 October 2015

From The Bookseller:

The Ted Hughes Estate has asked HarperCollins and author Jonathan Bate to “apologise for significant errors of fact” in Bate’s book about the poet, as well “damaging and offensive claims” about Hughes’ widow, Carol Hughes.

In a statement issued by the solicitor for the estate, Damon Parker of Harcus Sinclair, the estate said it was “also seeking a retraction of the factual errors and an undertaking that they will be corrected in any further printed editions of the book, and immediately in the e-book version now on sale”.

But HarperCollins, whose William Collins imprint published Ted Hughes: The Unauthorised Life on 1st October, said it stood by Bate’s “scholarly and masterly biography”, and that “every effort” was made to “corroborate all facts used in the book”.

The Ted Hughes Estate said it had found 18 “factual errors or unsupported assertions in just 16 pages of the book that pertain directly to Mrs Carol Hughes – some significant, some minor – and details of all of these have been sent to the publisher and author for a response”.

The errors are mainly in parts of the book “which deal primarily with the highly-fraught period just before and after her [Carol Hughes’] husband’s death in October 1998, and which appear to involve her personally”.

. . . .

Carol Hughes said: “The number of errors found in just a very few pages examined from this book are hard to excuse, since any serious biographer has an obligation to check his facts and to ensure, as the author affirms in his recentGuardian article, that he should only fix in print those things that have been fully corroborated.”

A statement from HarperCollins said: “HarperCollins stands by Jonathan Bate’s scholarly and masterly biography of Ted Hughes. Professor Bate has made every effort to corroborate all facts used in the book which was made more difficult by the withdrawal of support for the project by the Ted Hughes Estate. Professor Bate regrets any minor errors that may have been made which are bound to occur in a book of over 600 pages that draws upon such voluminous and diverse source material.

“Professor Bate’s book has been written in good faith and facts verified by multiple sources including family members and close friends. Any errors found will of course be corrected in the next printing.”

Link to the rest at The Bookseller

Pressure to ‘publish or perish’ may discourage innovative research, UCLA study suggests

13 October 2015

From the UCLA Newsroom:

The traditional pressure in academia for faculty to “publish or perish” advances knowledge in established areas. But it also might discourage scientists from asking the innovative questions that are most likely to lead to the biggest breakthroughs, according to a new study spearheaded by a UCLA professor.

Researchers have long faced a natural tension and tradeoff when deciding whether to build on accumulated knowledge in a field or pursue a bold new idea that challenges established thinking. UCLA assistant professor of sociology Jacob Foster and his co-authors describe it as a conflict between “productive tradition” and “risky innovation.”

To study this tension, Foster and his colleagues assembled a database of more than 6.4 million scholarly publications in the fields of biomedicine and chemistry from 1934 to 2008. They then analyzed whether individual publications built on existing discoveries or created new connections — in effect, creating a map of the growing web of scientific knowledge. Finally, they correlated each of the two broad strategies with two types of reward: citations in subsequent research and more substantial recognition conferred by 137 different scholarly awards.

. . . .

The study found that a remarkably consistent pattern characterizes contemporary research in biomedicine and chemistry: more than 60 percent of the papers had no new connections, meaning that they primarily built on tradition and eschewed innovation.

Drawing on their analysis of scientific rewards, Foster and his colleagues argue that researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia. Conversely, researchers who ask more original questions and seek to forge new links in the web of knowledge are more likely to stumble on the road to publication, which can make them appear unproductive to their colleagues. If published, however, these innovative research projects are more highly rewarded with citations. And scientists who win awards — especially major ones, like a Nobel Prize — have more of these innovative moves in their research portfolio.

“Published papers that make a novel connection are rare but more highly rewarded,” said Foster, the study’s lead author. “So what accounts for scientists’ disposition to pursue tradition over innovation? Our evidence points to a simple explanation: Innovative research is a gamble whose payoff, on average, does not justify the risk. It’s not a reliable way to accumulate scientific reward.”

Foster added: “When scientists innovate, they may be betting on extraordinary impact. They are playing for posterity.”

Link to the rest at UCLA Newsroom and thanks to Julia for the tip.

Hank Shaw announces plans to self-publish next book

6 October 2015

From The Sacramento Bee:

Hunter-forager-food blogger and cookbook author Hank Shaw of Sacramento is preparing his third wild-game cookbook after “Hunt, Gather, Cook” and “Duck, Duck, Goose.”

For this one, though, he’s left the mainstream-publishing path for the riskier self-publishing trail, turning to the crowd-funding platform Kickstarter. He’s asking for $30,000 to produce “Buck, Buck, Moose: Recipes and Techniques For Cooking Deer, Elk, Antelope, Moose and Other Antlered Things.”

Shaw launched the Kickstarter campaign at 4 a.m. Monday. As of 10:30 a.m., 227 backers had pledged $17,719, with 35 more days of fund-raising to go. “I’m shocked to learn we’re more than halfway there,” he said by phone. “We plan to have it on shelves by August 2016, kind of when the California deer hunting season starts.”

Earlier this year, Shaw was offered a deal for “Buck, Buck, Moose” by a New York publisher, he said, but turned it down because “it wasn’t the best fit for the success of the book. The (venison-eating) market is gigantic, but one that’s not easy for mainstream publishers to reach.”

. . . .

“I call it the ‘venison diaspora,’” he said. “There are almost 14 million deer hunters in the U..S. and another 1.5 million in Canada. For every person who hunts deer, there are often two or three other people who are being given venison (by the hunters). So the number of North Americans who eat venison is something along the order of 20 to 30 million a year.”

Link to the rest at The Sacramento Bee

PG says if you don’t want to use hapax legomenon in a conversation today, you can use venison diaspora.

Inmate serving life sentence sues writer, publisher of book about late mob boss Russell Bufalino

1 October 2015

From The Wilkes Barre Times Leader:

An inmate serving a life sentence for murder sued the author of “The Quiet Don,” the 2013 book on the late organized crime boss Russell Bufalino, claiming the writer wrongly named him as the killer of a witness against another reputed mobster.

Louis Coviello, 59, a former Dunmore High School football star in the 1970s, said he has suffered “beyond description” as a result of the fabricated account and sought $1 million in compensatory and punitive damages each from the author, Matt Birkbeck, The Berkley Publishing Group and the Penguin Group.

. . . .

Coviello disputed Birkbeck’s account of what happened in the room of a patient recovering from a heart attack at the former Community Medical Center in Scranton.

“The book states that I walked into his room, closed the door, took a pillow and placed it over his head, smothering him to death,” the suit said.

“This is a completely fabricated piece of fiction that Defendant Matt Birkbeck created to make this book resemble a mob story,” the suit said.

On page 182 of the book the patient was an unnamed witness against Philip “Fibber” Forgione. But Coviello identified him as Frank Cooper whom he said had died at another hospital a year after the alleged murder at CMC.

Coviello filed the complaint himself earlier this month in U.S. District Court for the Middle District Pennsylvania, Scranton.

. . . .

The author wrote Coviello came clean with the confession out of sense of guilt as he spoke to investigators in 2006 looking into the alleged mob ties of Dunmore businessman Louis DeNaples who was applying for a casino license from the state. Birkbeck related that Coviello cooperated in the investigation and felt let down by DeNaples, a family friend, who reneged on a promise of legal help and protection in prison.

Coviello denied providing information to investigators, either over the phone or in writing. Letters reprinted in the book were not written by Coviello, the suit said. He demanded that the letters, referred to in the book, be produced in their “original format.”

Coviello dismissed the book as not living up to the hype of being “the untold story of Mafia Kingpin Russell Bufalino,” saying it repeated newspaper and media accounts of “long ago.” If it concentrated on Bufalino, who reportedly ordered that former Teamster head Jimmy Hoffa be killed, Coviello said he would not have filed the complaint.

“But this book is really a story about Louis DeNaples of Dunmore, Pennsylvania,” the suit said.

Link to the rest at Wilkes Barre Times Leader

Under the terms of most Big Publishing contracts, the author would be responsible for paying all of Penguin’s legal expenses plus any judgment Mr. Coviello might obtain.

PG notes that pro se (for oneself) lawsuits filed without benefit of an attorney very seldom last long in court.

Author Solutions and Alliant International University Partner to Launch Alliant Press

24 September 2015

From Businesswire:

Author Solutions, LLC, a Penguin Random House company and the world’s leading supported self-publishing services provider, and Alliant International University announced Wednesday the launch of Alliant Press—the first-ever university press to utilize the supported self-publishing model.

“Launching a university press requires considerable fixed costs, making it prohibitive for most colleges and universities,” commented Andrew Phillips, Author Solutions president and CEO. “For some time, we’ve believed that bringing the efficiencies of supported self-publishing to the university-press model could dramatically reduce barriers of entry, ultimately resulting in learning institutions disseminating scholarship for the greater good.”

Operated by Author Solutions’ iUniverse imprint, Alliant Press will exclusively publish the academic works of AIU students, scholars, alumni, staff and other select authors. Authors will be chosen by an editorial board of scholarly experts, with AIU funding the works. Authors publishing their research, dissertations and other scholarly works through Alliant Press will maintain all copyrights and receive book royalties.

“We are very excited to be working with Author Solutions to create a new model of academic publishing,” said Geoffrey Cox, president of Alliant International University. He added, “We have the best of both worlds—curated content produced in a highly efficient way. We believe this opens publishing opportunities that otherwise would not exist for members of our academic community.”

Link to the rest at Businesswire

Academics are being hoodwinked into writing books nobody can buy

7 September 2015

From The Guardian:

A few months ago, an editor from an academic publisher got in touch to ask if I was interested in writing a book for them.

I’ve ignored these requests in the past. I know of too many colleagues who have responded to such invitations, only to see their books disappear on to a university library shelf in a distant corner of the world.

If someone tried to buy said book – I mean, like a real human being – they would have to pay the equivalent of a return ticket to a sunny destination or a month’s child benefit. These books start at around £60, but they can cost double that, or even more.

This time, however, I decided to play along.

So I got the editor on the phone and he asked if I had an idea for them. “Sure,” I said, trying to sound enthusiastic. “Perhaps I could write a book about…” – and here I started piling up ugly-sounding buzzwords.

I could hear how he momentarily drifted off, probably to reply to an email, and when I was done with my terrible pitch, he simply said: “Great!”

“The best thing now,” he continued, “is if you could jot down a few pages, as a proposal, which we could then send out to reviewers.” He paused a second, then added: “If you have any friends who could act as reviewers and who you think could sign off on the project, then that’d be great.”

. . . .

“So how many copies do you usually sell?” I inquired.

“About 300.”

“For all your books?”

“Yes, unless you would assign your book on your own modules.”

I was growing fascinated by the numbers so I asked how many of these books they published each year.

“I have to…” he started (inadvertently revealing that this was a target that had been set) “…I have to publish around 75 of these.”

Seventy-five books, £80 each, selling on average 300 copies. That’s £1.8m.

. . . .

Most academics get these requests. A colleague was recently courted by an editor who, after confessing they only published expensive hardbacks (at around £200), explained that this was an opportunity for my colleague to enhance his academic record. He was told he could give them pretty much anything, like an old report, or some old articles.

“I can’t believe anyone would write a book that would be too expensive for anyone to buy,” the colleague told me over the phone. “Just to add a line to your cv.”

Another colleague, on discovering his published book was getting widespread attention but was too expensive to buy, tried to get the publishers to rush out a cheaper paperback version. They ignored his request.

Link to the rest at The Guardian and thanks to C. for the tip.

Maryland university to eliminate textbooks

28 August 2015

From USA Today:

The University of Maryland University College plans to eliminate textbooks this fall to save students money by using resources online.

Kara Van Dam, a vice provost, said Thursday students will be able use a variety of materials like readings and videos online at no cost.

Van Dam says the change will save students thousands of dollars over their academic program. She says other universities are taking similar steps, but UMUC is a front runner in making a transition of this magnitude.

Link to the rest at USA Today and thanks to Joshua for the tip.

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