MassPIRG report urges expanded use of open-source textbooks

Last modified: Thursday, February 26, 2015

AMHERST — Four years into a campus initiative aimed at reducing textbook costs by making course material available for free online, University of Massachusetts students and staff are pushing for more faculty to use this option.

While the Open Source Initiative has already saved an estimated $1 million in textbook expenses for UMass students since it started in spring semester 2011, a report titled “Open Textbooks: The Billion Dollar Solution” issued Wednesday by the Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group encourages student leaders to fight for expansion of the program.

“It’s clear the textbook industry is broken and meeds to change,” said Matthew Magalhaes, the affordable textbook campaign coordinator for MassPIRG.

Jennifer Raichel, chairwoman of the Student Government Association’s undergraduate experience, said student leaders have twice endorsed legislation aimed at increasing the likelihood of open-source textbooks.

“The next step is for us to be more active and to campaign for this by lobbying professors,” Raichel said.

During a press conference Wednesday at the W.E.B. DuBois Library, Magalhaes said students have long known that high textbook costs are damaging to students and their families.

“Now it’s a matter of prodding faculty to take up this program we have here,” said Magalhaes, a freshman from Freetown. “To get there, we need faculty to opt in.”

The report shows that even if just one textbook for each class a UMass student takes is replaced by an open-source option, these students would save $2.8 million a semester, Magalhaes said. The typical UMass student currently spends around $1,200 each year for textbooks.

The UMass initiative allows textbooks to be published under an open license, which means faculty-written and peer-reviewed works can be made available free online to download, with printing costs between $10 and $40 paid for by students.

Jay Schafer, the director of the UMass libraries, said the initiative has been funded with assistance from the Office of the Provost and the Friends of the Library. UMass has invested more than $39,000 in grants that encourage faculty participation, creating open access to scholarly works and housing this material at the library.

Schafer said both faculty and students have enjoyed the program, but it takes a lot of work to change. This is where the $10,000 in grants available each semester comes in. Professors can apply for grants of between $1,000 and $2,500 that pay for the time and effort to switch their existing course curriculum and determine whether free course materials can be used. Some have used this money to hire teachers’ assistants to do this work for them.

Schafer said the hope is there can be more financial support, such as funding a separate library position to focus on open textbooks. The program already has streaming video that provides information to faculty, and workshops have also supported faculty interested in offering this low-cost access.

Magalhaes said MassPIRG argues that it’s time to release the grip that traditional publishers have on textbooks.

Raichel said she’s encouraged by the findings in the report.

“The report will provide a lot of support for what we’re trying to do here,” Raichel said. “It’s very minimal right now and not many students know about it.”

The open-source effort has been shepherded by Marilyn Billings, scholarly communication and special initiatives librarian at the library, who said many faculty appreciate the social justice implications of being able to offer cheaper textbooks.

Billings said there are benefits beyond the cost savings to students because they are often better prepared and better educated about these open-source materials.

What UMass is doing has inspired other colleges and universities, including UCLA, Cornell University and North Carolina State, Schafer said.

Magalhaes said surveys indicate nearly seven in 10 students have forgone purchasing a textbook because of the high cost.

“Students shouldn’t have to contemplate that when it’s a required part of class,” Magalhaes said.

Scott Merzbach can be reached at


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