Inequitable access: an anti-competitive ploy by textbook publishers


It goes by many names, but no matter how you cut it, the new ‘Inclusive Access’ model for college course material is a bad deal for students.

Educators are increasingly turning to digital textbooks, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has forced publishers to scramble to keep access limited and revenue high with paywalls, GDN, and expiration of access. These options force students to choose between a bad deal and play with their grade by skipping the purchase altogether.

Rather than contesting these artificial scarcity By embracing Open Education, colleges are making a deal with publishers creating “inclusive access” models, but this positive sounding name is not inclusive at all. Under inclusive access, colleges simply charge students for textbooks and digital materials on their tuition bill—and their access often expires when the course is over. This automatic billing only serves to trick students. The explosion of digital textbooks has no place on your tuition bill when open licenses offer more equitable alternatives.

Editors keep an old grift

The rising cost of college textbooks has been an absurd joke for decades. Publishers convince a professor to use their book and potentially gain hundreds of mandatory student clients, with demand renewed every semester. While the pesky student habits of sharing and reselling textbooks put some downward pressure on the prices of new books, strategic releases of new editions have managed to keep these forces at bay.

The explosion of digital textbooks has no place on your tuition bill when open licenses offer more equitable alternatives.

However, with the increase in demand for digital course materials, which accelerated during the pandemic, publishers have been looking for new ways to apply a artificial scarcity. Digital products have virtually no reproduction costs and can be easily remixed for innovative new purposes, but rather than passing on these benefits, publishers instead implement GDN make the use, sharing and conservation of these materials difficult or impossible. The other growth strategy is “Manual as a service”, where textbooks are replaced with paid access to online education platforms plagued by privacy concerns and accessibility barriers, and access is also revoked at the end of the quarter.

It is a terrible business, and the students know it. However, when they are deprived of the right to share or buy used textbooks, they have only one alternative: play with their note by skipping the purchase altogether. After getting burned by a few courses in which assigned texts are never used, or better materials can be found online, it starts to sound like a sane strategy. However, it can also work against you when exams and homework are tailored to a particular text. It is often the most vulnerable students who are pushed to take this bet, and this perpetuates wider social inequalities.

An “inclusive” and “equitable” burden

In the face of such a parody, some schools contract directly with publishers and campus bookstores (often operated by major booksellers) to simply bill all students through their tuition bill after a brief period of unsubscribe or refund.

What this means in practice is that the student will either be charged for material they cannot afford or go through the opt-out process and will always be at a disadvantage.

This “inclusive” access system imposes switching costs on students when they choose to purchase materials elsewhere. Not only do they have to navigate an unsubscribe process, but publishers also charge more compared to other sellers. If you’d rather support a small local bookstore instead of a Barnes & Noble on campus, you’ve got to jump through the hoops and ultimately pay more.

While administrators often point to these programs as a way to avoid the gamble that students make when they forgo purchasing their textbooks, this in practice means that the student will be charged for the material they are paying. cannot afford either will go through the option on the process and still be at a disadvantage. Worse yet, if they decide to make a purchase from a competitor after retiring, such as when studying for a semester or final, they ultimately pay a higher price.

Concretely, this means that students have to make a buying decision earlier and with higher stakes, possibly before the deadline to commit to the course itself. If that sounds exhausting, that’s the point. Publishers and big bookstores are betting that students feel overwhelmed and only incur the material costs.

While “inclusive access” is often a tuition fee per course, some schools such as UC Davis explore what is called a “fair” access program. In this version, students are charged equal $ 200 per quarter to cover all of their digital purchases. In this case, students must withdraw for almost three weeks before classes even start. While digital documents do not expire at the end of the semester in this case, restrictive DRM means they can only be accessed through the third-party Bookshelf app, a product owned by a subsidiary of Ingram Content Group (at its tour owner of many publishers such as Baker & Taylor, Hachette and Persée).

These programs in more than 30 establishments are not only blatantly anti-competitive, but completely unnecessary. All the supposed benefits of these programs are more fully and equitably covered by open education initiatives.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open education is the simple idea that the power of open licensing should be applied to educational materials. This means that students have instant access to all digital documents at no cost, and best of all, they and their instructor are free to use and remix the documents under. Creative Commons and other open licenses. This opens up the possibility of adapting these resources so that they are more relevant and responsive to students in a given school and class.

As an example of really fair access, Rice University launched the non-profit technology initiative OpenStax in 2012, which publishes high-quality, peer-reviewed digital course content for free. This benefits not only their own students, but also the students of hundreds of universities and colleges around the world.

It’s not just a good deal for students whose campuses and instructors embrace Open Education, either. Projects like OpenStax have sparked competition in the textbook market, and since 2017, textbook prices have stable after 50 years of growth above inflation. Fortunately, they are not alone. Many universities contribute, organize and maintain a huge amount of educational resources that eliminate or reduce the cost of course material for students.

So what’s the delay if a high-quality document library was available long before the practice of automated textbook invoicing became mainstream? A major obstacle is that most instructors have never heard of OER before.

Push back exclusion access contracts

Fortunately, a large coalition of free culture groups, coordinated by SPARC, recently launched, a site that offers talking points and information to help students and other members of a school community educate policy makers. If you already have automated billing for textbooks on campus, the SPARC service contract library will help you sift through the fine print of the transaction.

Campus advocacy is an essential first step in defending against or invasive school contracts with publishers and suppliers when they appear. Contacting librarians and administrators on how to support open education is the best first step. If your efforts convince a single instructor to embrace open educational resources (or publish their own material under an open license), you can contribute to more equity for students and less time for lesson preparation for students. instructors.

With enough momentum, you and your fellow organizers can use your own organization toolkits as well as resources of open textbook alliance and OpenStax. If you are starting to meet regularly on the issue, consider joining our local information-sharing network, the Electronic Frontier Alliance, for advice from EFF and other alliance members on any digital rights issue on campus.

EFF is proud to celebrate Open Access The week.

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