v31 #3 Open and Affordable Textbooks — Three Levels of Open

by | Jun 28, 2019 | 0 comments

by Caren Milloy  (Deputy Director, Jisc Collections)  

and Graham Stone (Senior Research Manager, Jisc Collections)  

Institutions need to provide high quality teaching and learning and meet the expectations of their students;  the provision of key course material with no hidden or extra fees is one area where institutions continue to focus their efforts.  To support this, Jisc Collections seeks to provide its members with a range of affordable e-textbook content licensing options to support teaching and learning and support parity of access.

However, at a sector level, little progress has been made in securing direct agreements with acceptable savings and access models requirements with major textbook publishers for UK higher education (HE).  This is due to a number of factors, such as a lack of influence of the UK market on publishers’ strategies and offerings, differing requirements of many UK institutions1 and the lack of any additional money to bring to negotiations.  Indeed, current moves from publishers appear to include increases in recurrent costs alongside reductions in access periods for rentals, the removal of sustainable options via book suppliers and a strategy to encourage publisher lock-in through vendor platforms.

There is a need for the sector to take back control of many of these issues, to prevent the “big deal” for e-textbooks, to curtail costs and to maintain the “uniqueness” of each institutions offering.  In 2019 Jisc Collections will consult on a new approach to e-textbook, which will feature a mixed model offering with short, medium and long-term actions and goals to keep the community informed.  While continuing to investigate other options, such as inclusive e-textbook provision, courseware and agreements with smaller specialist textbook publishers, Jisc Collections would like to build on its experience of the Institution as e-textbook publisher project and toolkit (Jisc, 2018), market intelligence around key textbook titles and a recent study on author motivation, to encourage institutions to create their own open and affordable textbooks.  There is the opportunity to build capacity and skill sets through the growing movement of New University Presses to challenge traditional textbook publishing and to produce affordable alternatives. Open and affordable textbooks are an ideal way to offer “personalised” course content and to include the “student voice.” 

To achieve this, we need to develop a strategy that has buy in from the sector.  It needs to be affordable and scalable, which is why we have based it on evidence from the above projects and initiatives.  This paper is an attempt to define the approach we have discussed and developed with our e-textbook strategy group, as part of our consultation with the community in the UK and beyond. 


The vision for an open and affordable e-textbook landscape in the UK is based on a three-tiered approach.

Tier 1

Tier 1 includes high-level textbooks where there is potential for a large readership. These can be divided into “Introduction to…” textbooks and interdisciplinary guides.

“Introduction to…” textbooks are those aimed at 1st year undergraduates.  Openstax (n.d.) at Rice University have already produced a number of titles across various disciplines.  However, it is yet to be gauged whether these textbooks are transferable to a UK HE audience.  There is also a crossover with the work of the UK Open Textbooks project (Rolfe & Pitt, 2018). A major drawback for pursuing an open/affordable agenda with this type of textbook is the cost of producing a new title.  This poses the obvious question, would an open/affordable version of this type of textbook actually reduce costs for universities or the sector? There may be a reduction in direct costs, but indirect costs, such as academic times and publishing infrastructure could negate this.  Therefore, the strategy will answer a defined set of questions to establish what models will suit the UK and how such titles can be produced affordably.

Interdisciplinary guides appear on many course reading lists.  Commercial versions of these guides are relatively inexpensive;  our evidence also suggests that there is no firm favorite or key text for UK libraries.  However, libraries will purchase tens, even hundreds of copies of these guides, meaning that the total expenditure is potentially quite high.  Work done by the University of Highlands and Islands/Napier University during the Institution as e-textbook publisher project has produced two such guides (Jisc, 2018).  Evidence from the project shows that these affordable guides can compete with the commercial version.  However, further work is required to investigate whether these guides are a “nice to have” or essential texts, and whether a sector owned version may deliver savings.

Tier 2

In 2018, Jisc Collections conducted an author motivation study.  While purely indicative, results told us that for academics as teachers only 30% rated entire textbooks as “really important,” while 20% rated them as “unimportant.”  However, 55% rated chapters from textbooks as “really important.” Academics as authors were also demotivated by the lack of time available to produce textbooks and having to produce entire textbooks on their own.  This leads us to the 2nd tier: textbook series/case studies.

Tier 2 is inspired by the “living books’”produced by Liverpool and UCL in the Institution as e-textbook publisher project (Jisc, 2018).  The idea behind these series would be to appoint a series editor or board for a given subject area or theme.  In support of the evidence above, authors from multiple institutions (UK or internationally) could be approached to contribute chapters.  This could include case studies, video, extended reviews and even student material. The chapters themselves could be written and revised reasonably quickly.  These points go some way to answer the issue of textbook currency surfaced in the author motivation study. There is also potential for disciplines that do not have a set textbook, such as new and developing research areas that are moving into learning and teaching.  These titles could also give an entry level to New University Presses (NUPs) and Academic-Led Publishing, which is a growing movement in the UK. Indeed, a 2017 Jisc report (Adema & Stone, 2017) notes that three NUPs are already publishing textbooks and this could be further harnessed to support a sector led programme.

Tier 3

The third layer is not necessarily open or even strictly a textbook and will only be discussed briefly.  This tier includes accompanying material, such as tests and quizzes (courseware), lecture notes or open/alternative educational resources (OAER’s).  We believe that there could be a logical connection between lecture notes and case studies/series outlined in Tier 2. With the right incentives, academics could be encouraged to convert lecture notes into chapters within case studies, with quality control taking place at the editorial level of the series.  This may provide an entry level to early career academics.

However, this is very much a longer term aim as there are issues around IPR and copyright that need to be answered.  There may be a role for Jisc in making a set of guidelines widely available and in creating a set of licences, but any work in this area would need to follow on from tiers 1 and 2.

Stakeholder Engagement

It must be stressed that this article outlines the approach we would like to take regarding open and affordable textbooks;  it is not the finished strategy. As a first step, it was taken to Jisc Collection’s e-textbook strategy group, who reacted positively to the ideas put forward.

During 2019 we will liaise with stakeholders and develop a strategy and plan for the following two years.  Our immediate goal is to go through a period of validation and ratification from academics, pro-vice chancellors for teaching and learning, libraries, educational technologists, library presses and others including learned societies and other consortia who have had some success in this area.  In addition, the student voice, including distance learners, must not be forgotten. The strategy will also aim to leverage collaborative action and partnerships at an international level alongside other consortia strategies to ensure we are taking a community approach to increase our influence on the marketplace.  We are seeking feedback and comment; this article is part of that. 

At the very least, engagement will help us to understand the drivers and barriers in moving to open and affordable textbooks.  It will also help raise their profile with PVC’s for teaching and learning. We will refine the vision to include what is realistic and outline what needs to happen in the background before the above can be achieved in a sustainable way.  As such, the vision will be developed iteratively, and some parts may not be taken forward. We also hope to identify potential disciplines and partners in order to start to apply the vision.

Cultural Change

One of the key takeaways from our author motivation study was that authors felt practical institutional support was uncommon.  Where there was support, academics were clear that unilateral support for textbook publication by their institution would not enhance their own professional credibility with future employers.  Therefore, for any future strategy to be successful, there is a requirement for significant cultural change in addition to buy-in across the sector. Potentially this is an issue for university selection procedures and recognition (both institutional and individual) in national assessment, such as the Teaching Excellence and Student Outcomes Framework (TEF), which “assesses excellence in teaching at universities and colleges, and how well they ensure excellent outcomes for their students in terms of graduate-level employment or further study” (OFS, n.d.) and /or the Knowledge Excellence Framework (KEF), which is “intended to increase efficiency and effectiveness in use of public funding for knowledge exchange (KE), to further a culture of continuous improvement in universities by providing a package of support to keep English university knowledge exchange operating at a world class standard.  It aims to address the full range of KE activities” (KEF, n.d.).

This is clearly a longer-term goal of the strategy.  However, lack of cultural change may well operate as a block to anything in the final strategy being achieved.  Therefore, conversations about cultural change need to begin as soon as possible to understand the significant challenges.  At the time of writing, this process is already underway with Jisc’s work to support learning and teaching in higher education.

Business Models

A further goal of the strategy is to have evidenced existing spend and to set out new models that enable some spend to be diverted into supporting open and affordable models that match the ethos of our education system.  An example model might be to crowdfund targeted disciplines/titles, perhaps as a collaboration of New University Presses, particularly if there was evidence for demand from library data and the appetite for joint ventures by presses.  


This paper has outlined our initial thoughts around a vision for open and affordable textbooks in the UK.  Open textbooks have potential to be molded to individual teaching methods, while protecting copyright and IPR.  They could also level the playing field for students, giving parity and no hidden costs. Textbooks published by the sector, for the sector also present the opportunity to keep funds within the system and to build capacity and skills.  Furthermore, cultural change leading to recognition and reward at a national level can promote teaching excellence. The challenge as always is realizing the potential and making it something viable and achievable — hence the need for a new approach to be endorsed and adopted by the sector as a whole — not just the libraries.  The flip side is that if the sector doesn’t take control, if the sector doesn’t engage or consider how change could lead to new affordable models or embrace open, then we will remain in the hands of the large commercial textbook publishers heading further down the road of vendor lock in.


Adema, Janneke and Stone, GrahamChanging publishing ecologies: a landscape study of new university presses and academic-led publishing.  Bristol: Jisc, 2017. Web. 19 Mar. 2019.  http://repository.jisc.ac.uk/6666/.    

Broadhurst, Dominic. “The direct library supply of individual textbooks to students: examining the value proposition.” Information and Learning Science 118. 11/12 (2017): 629-641.  https://doi.org/10.1108/ILS-07-2017-0072.  Web 19 Mar. 2019.  

JiscInstitution as e-textbook publisher toolkit.  Jisc, 2018. Web 19 Mar. 2019.  https://www.jisc.ac.uk/guides/institution-as-e-textbook-publisher-toolkit.  

KEF.  Knowledge Exchange Framework.  UKRI, n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2019.  https://re.ukri.org/knowledge-exchange/knowledge-exchange-framework/.  

OFS.  Teaching Excellence Framework.  Office for Students, n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2019.  https://www.officeforstudents.org.uk/advice-and-guidance/teaching/what-is-the-tef/.  

OpenStax.  About us.  Open Stax, 2018. Web. 19 Mar. 2019.  https://openstax.org/about.  

Rolfe, Vivien and Pitt, Beck.  “Open textbooks: an untapped opportunity for universities, colleges and schools.”  Insights 31. (2018): 30.  http://doi.org/10.1629/uksg.427.  Web. 19 Mar. 2019.  


  1. Some institutions, with endorsement and funding for an inclusive access e-textbook programme, have managed to leverage high discounts through direct negotiations with publishers (Broadhurst, 2017) though we would note that publishers are now starting to push back on the discount levels as they move away from a “pilot” into continuous service.


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