[Caltech economics professor R. Preston] McAfee is one of a band of would-be reformers who are trying to beat the high cost — and, they say, the dumbing down — of college textbooks by writing or promoting open-source, no-cost digital texts.
Thus far, their quest has been largely quixotic, but that could be changing. Public colleges and universities in California this past year backed several initiatives to promote online course materials, and publishers and entrepreneurs are stepping up release of electronic textbooks, which typically sell at reduced prices.
McAfee is a leader in his academic field, a featured speaker at the Yahoo Big Thinkers India conference in March. Tall and genial, he dresses in khakis, a polo shirt and geeky river sandals. A coauthor of the best-selling book “Freakonomics,” Steven D. Levitt, has described him as brilliant. What McAfee is not is anti-capitalist.
“Im a right-wing economist, so they can’t call me a communist,” McAfee said.
Yet he turned down $100,000 to turn over his open-source textbook “Introduction to Economic Analysis” to a commercial publisher.
“What makes us rich as a society is what we know and what we can do,” he said. “Anything that stands in the way of the dissemination of knowledge is a real problem.”
McAfee said he wrote his open-source book because the traditional textbook market is broken. Textbook and college supply prices nearly tripled between 1986 and 2004, an audit by the federal Government Accountability Office found in 2005. With costs continuing to climb, it would be “reasonable to conclude that [individual student] expenditures can easily approach $700 to $1,000 today even after supplies are subtracted,” the congressional Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance said in a 2007 report.
“Publishers have broken an implicit contract with academics, in which we gave our time and they weren’t too greedy,” McAfee wrote on the web page for his book. McAfee said many publishers, going for the lowest common denominator, were making some books too simple.
Representatives of the textbook industry say they have invested in new products because instructors have demanded it.