"I get messages every day that people have downloaded my book"

Discussion series "Publishing in transition"

What are the benefits of creating an Open Textbook and what are the best ways to approach it? Recently,  the Publishing Support team and  the Open Education track of the Open Science programme of  Utrecht University organised a session on the different forms of open textbooks. "There is a lot of interest in creating these Open Educational Resources and we want to facilitate the conversation and find out what kind of support can be useful," says Hanna de Vries (University Library).

"When I worked at the University Library, I was responsible for ordering books for a number of fields," says Open Education and Resources expert Marjan Groenouwe (Open Education). "I was not only surprised at the pricing of books, but sometimes digital access would cost more than €1000 for only one user. This makes the title useless for educational purposes. I was also surprised by the fact that in some cases we 'bought back' books from our own colleagues at Utrecht University. "

But times are changing, and teachers and researchers are discovering how to publish open textbooks in a way that fits their intended purpose. "It's important to note that there is not one type of open textbook," Hanna says, "and that's actually a great thing. Because of its digital nature and the many options in licenses, you can actually be very creative and adapt the model to your needs and those of your students."

"Students sometimes work with outdated books"

Jaap Bos, associate professor at the Faculty of Social Sciences, says he was frustrated by the fact that many books assigned to courses were too expensive for students. "So a lot of them don't buy them Or they work with outdated and worthless copies of the books." Moreover, he was not satisfied with the existing range of educational literature. "So I decided I would just write my own work on research ethics. "

Killing two birds with one stone, Jaap decided to take the open access route. "I ended up at  Springer quite early and had productive conversations with the editors. They made me an offer to publish the book open access under a CC-BY license for €6000."  Half of the money came from the university's open access fund, the other half was divided between the two departments where Jaap works.

Jaap was very satisfied with the editing and peer review process and especially happy with the worldwide free availability of his book. "Every day I get messages that someone has downloaded or used my book. I’m very pleased when I see people using this book for free, especially in the poorer parts of the world.”

Every day I get messages that someone has downloaded or used my book.

"Publishing teaching material open access is an important aspect"

Not everyone goes so far as to write an entire book themselves. As part of a major Erasmus project, Jochen Hung, assistant professor in the Department of History and Art History, worked closely with colleagues from other European universities on a new textbook for European history. "One of the fund's criteria was to publish our teaching materials open access," says Jochen. "This was an important aspect, so we started looking for a suitable publisher." 

They ended up at Open Book Publishers, a non-profit humanities publisher based in the United Kingdom. "We wrote the book during the Covid period, with four people per chapter and a total size of 970 pages. A big operation, but the help from the publisher was great." The digital textbook, published under an open license, costs €7000 (Open Book Publishers requires a voluntary contribution from authors, provided they can afford it). 

Jochen's book, and that of Jaap Bos can be found on the website of OAPEN. This 'online library' and publication platform for academic open access titles offers writers the opportunity to make their scientific work more visible and to distribute it worldwide. As community manager Tom Mosterd points out during the meeting, more and more books can be found on the platform: "We now host about 26,000 titles and that number is growing by the day."

"I adapted an existing textbook to my needs"

Something that an open textbook also makes possible  – if  the book is published under the right license – is modifying existing work so that it meets your needs. Colin Caret, assistant professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religious Studies, did just that for his first-year logic course.

"There is already an internationally renowned standard book on logic from the Open Logic project that has been fine-tuned over a decade. And the nice thing is: it is freely available for reuse and adaptation." So Colin created his own version that is compatible with online education and the Carnap IO online learning tool. "It helps if you know LaTeX (a programming language for formatting documents, eds.), but that's pretty easy to learn. I decided to mix and match the relevant parts and also make adjustments to examples to make it better aligned with my own education."

The  end result: a 'Utrecht' edition of the standard work, free to download for students. "Students can get a paper copy through Amazon," Colin explains. "That will cost you €6. It was even the number one product on Amazon.nl for a few days last year." Looking back on time invested versus the result, Colin is happy.  "Of course this takes time, but you work with a great resource and it really improves the quality of my course. "

Of course this takes time, but you work with a great resource and it really improves the quality of my course.

"You don't have to be an expert in programming"

But why stick to the traditional form of a book? The enthusiasm of Neha Noopen of the University Library about creating open textbooks with R is infectious. "You don't have to be an expert in programming  to  use R to collaborate on a book," she says. With a few mouse clicks, the code on the screen is converted into a web page that serves as a textbook. "Look, here you can see students' comments."

She opens a new tab on her browser to show Github, an application to collaborate on code. Utrecht University has an organisation on Github, which makes working together with colleagues and students even easier.

"Creating an open textbook this way is a matter of just getting started. There are several templates that you can use in this way." For common questions there is often an answer on the internet. "And if you need help, you can always come to the walk-in consultation hours of Research Data Management support. Then we can set up a framework together."

Work in progress

Given the enthusiasm and  turnout, the Publishing Support team of the University Library and the Open Education Theme are planning a number of follow-up sessions in the coming months. These sessions will be more hands-on and focus on the practicalities of choosing an outlet or platform, setting clear goals, financing and negotiating a good deal, and dealing with various open licenses.

Would you like to be kept informed of these follow-up sessions? Mail to Marjan Groenouwe or Hanna de Vries.

Discussion series "Publishing in transition"

Join the discussions about the effect of the introduction of open science at Utrecht University on publishing during meetings of the discussion series "Publishing in transition". The Publishing Support team of the university library organises this series in collaboration with the Open Science Programme. The effect of open science on academic publishing is highlighted and discussed from different angles during interviews and meetings. This is the fourth installment in the series.