Note from Jeremy: this is a guest post from Mark Vellend.
The textbook I use for my undergraduate class in plant ecology now costs about $150 (it used to cost <$100). I was alerted to this by the instructor who will be teaching the class for the next couple of years (while I have a fellowship to focus on research), and it immediately got me thinking again about ecology textbooks (see old DE posts here and here). I have never much liked 500+ page books whose weight (>2kg) immediately doubles the shoulder strain of my backpack. And $150 is an awful lot to more-or-less force students to pay. No wonder that students often don’t love them either.
To summarize my opinions on the downsides of textbooks, I find them:
- Too long.
- Too expensive.
- Too heavy.
- Overly packed with details (related to ‘too long’ and noted by several commenters on previous DE posts).
- Temporally “inflexible” (big lag time between book written and book published; then the book is “set in stone” for at least the next 5 years).
To be clear, this is not a criticism of textbook writers, for whom I have immense respect and admiration (writing a good one is a massive accomplishment and contribution). And of course textbooks have major upsides. Textbooks can be:
- Off-the-shelf course content for time-pinched teachers around the world (although there are typically many parts of any one book I want to teach differently).
- A reference to consult when you need a refresher on a particular topic.
- Markers of the state of a field for a given era.
- Providers of a common template of understanding of what the field is about (i.e., they can help make ecology a coherent discipline), and so shapers of the field itself.
In short, I find big fat traditional textbooks very useful as a teacher, and I can also see great value for advanced (e.g., grad) students. But undergrads? I’m not so sure. (And note that undergrads are where the money is made.)
And so my thoughts proceeded as follows:
- Just with my own students in mind to start with, I could convert the content and structure of the plant ecology course I’ve developed into a formal package of course notes, which would essentially constitute an informal book of sorts. (Many real books begin this way.)
- But then there must be many others who might be interested in such a “book”, so why not go ahead and publish it as a traditional book: “A primer of plant ecology”?
- Except that via the traditional publishing model this would still end up too expensive (<$50 is almost unimaginable) and inflexible as described above (I think I could avoid the problems of being too long, too heavy, and too detailed).
- So, given that we’re in the information/internet age, why not just format it all nicely myself, self-publish (lots of guidance online for that), update with a (slightly) new edition each year, and sell for next to nothing (maybe $5; more on cost below)?
I haven’t been able to come up with a good answer to that last ‘why not?’ question, which is why it seemed like an opportune time to write a blog post and see what others think. Clearly I am thinking about what action I myself might take (so much for focusing exclusively on research!), but there’s also a broader topic to discuss here (e.g., a book for all of ecology, not just plant ecology), and some alternative models and ideas to consider:
- There are definite advantages to the traditional route via a major publisher, including true professionals who do the layout, formatting, etc., their “stamp” of validity and prestige, a formal marketing effort, some money to be made, and a contract to focus your mind and effort. For the monograph I wrote, mostly for advanced students/practitioners, this seemed the right route. But if the motivation is to produce a learning aid for dozens of undergrads at a go, I’m less certain that’s the right route.
- Maybe I’m way, way underestimating the work involved in formatting things nicely. But maybe we also way, way overestimate how much student learning is improved by the graphic artist’s lovely rendition of photosynthesis vs. my half-decent drawing.
- Why not just go ‘all the way’ with the Wikipedia-type model, which has already produced an ecology Wikibook? To me, I suppose this just takes the train of thought beyond where I want to go: no coherent ‘voice’, things evolving out of your control, etc.
- Don’t authors deserve to make money? Certainly if a publisher will make money off your book, you deserve your cut. But as Stephen Heard said about reviewing papers, for many of us (me included) one can view producing educational materials as an “implicit part of our vaguely-defined jobs”. It certainly doesn’t feel right to make money from books I told my students to buy for a course I’m already paid to teach!
- Why not just put course notes online and call it a day? Is self-publishing really different than that anyway? Why charge anything at all? As far as I know, there’s not much precedent for self-published textbooks in ecology, so all I can report are Google-informed impressions and personal reflections. First, the idea of a book as end product would provide me with more motivation to produce something that other teachers and students would find useful, and that might have enduring value. Second, self-publishing is usually done in a way that isn’t 100% “self”, in that authors use a service (several to choose from) that deals with purchases, producing different formats (e.g., epub), and printing paper copies if anyone wants one of those. So, the cost of doing it isn’t zero. Charging something lets you at least recoup costs and keep track of purchases. One can even do a little extra work and get an ISBN to make it all more official-like.
Anyway, why not?
Maybe a group of ecologists should follow economists’ lead and produce a free textbook for the whole field.