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New Bill Proposes Open Source Requirement for Publicly Funded Books 317

Posted by timothy
from the return-to-the-commonwealth dept.
fsufitch writes "On September 30th, the 'Open College Textbook Act of 2009' was introduced to the Senate and referred to committee. The bill proposes that all educational materials published or produced using federal funds need to be published under open licenses. The reasoning behind it takes into account the changing way information is distributed because of the Internet, the high price of college and textbooks, and the dangerously low college graduation rates in the US. Will a bill such as this endanger publishing companies in the same way Internet journalism endangers traditional journalism?"
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New Bill Proposes Open Source Requirement for Publicly Funded Books

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  • Great idea, but... (Score:5, Interesting)

    by PvtVoid (1252388) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:27PM (#29608949)
    This is a laudable notion, but it has a huge loophole: how do we determine that the time an author spent working on a book was funded by the government? Consider a university scientist on an NSF grant. Such a scientist is typically paid salary off the grant for two months per year, with nine months paid in university salary, and one month not at all. The scientist files grant progress reports every year indicating what she did with the grant money, aside from surfing porn [slashdot.org]. If she doesn't want to open-source a book, she simply doesn't claim it as a grant-related activity, and instead publishes it for-profit and keeps the royalties.

    I suspect that this will only result in academic books being open-sourced which were already published at a loss, for example by university presses. Anything likely to make a substantial profit will still be closed source.
  • by l2718 (514756) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:37PM (#29609069)

    Seems to me that anything - books, medical procedures and devices, pharmaceuticals, etc. - belong to the public and we should not have to pay for them...

    Whoa -- not so fast. The government usually pays for fundamental research, and when it does the public should be able to freely use the fruits of the research. This means the right to read the research papers, see the data, and use any resulting inventions (i.e. practice resulting patents). However, getting from the fundamental research to the actual product usually requires more investment that is not government-funded -- and unless we make it possible for the people who put up the capital for this stage to profit they will not invest.

    For a hypothetical, assume that NIH-funded doctors discover that a particular plant extract improves survival rates from heart disease. They should have to make their research article freely available to the public (probably after a year's delay allowing research journals to profit -- this is to fund the refereeing system). They should also have to make their data available to the public so we can check the results. Note however, that knowing that the extract is useful is not the same as having a life-saving drug. Someone has to come up with an industrial process to manufacture the drug, establish appropriate dosages and safety levels and so on. Every drug company (they are members of the public too!) should be able to now use this publicly available knowledge to try make a drug. If they succeed we should give them patent protection for a while so they can recover the investment in their part of the work. Other drug companies should be able to use the public knowledge too, as long as they invent new drugs.

  • Re:Seems fair to me. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by commodore64_love (1445365) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:42PM (#29609139) Journal

    If this bill passes, it won't change anything. The professors that write these books will simply reject the U.S. funds and get money from other places like IBM, Microsoft, Ford, and so on. Professors want to be reimbursed for their many hours of work, not give books away for free (or cheap).

  • Re:Yep (Score:5, Interesting)

    by digsbo (1292334) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:46PM (#29609195)
    First Hand Evidence: I had a textbook for a music theory class that was two years old. It was IDENTICAL to the current edition; they were switching two chapters in the front of the book every year as a means of planned obsolescence, so as long as you had an odd-year printed book during an odd year (or even/even) you were ok.
  • Re:Yep (Score:3, Interesting)

    by megamerican (1073936) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @02:55PM (#29609307)

    You mean like C-SPAN where you can watch congress debate but its so annoyingly boring that no one watches it?

    C-span is awesome if you know when to watch. Most bills and debates are exceedingly boring but there are many which were the exact opposite. I skipped work to watch the debate on the $700 billion banking take over bill. Recently I watched the hearing on HR1207, which is a bill to audit the federal reserve. It was entertaining watching some congressmen, like Alan Grayson grill these officials.

    They always have public officials on for call-ins. Recently Michael Chertoff was on and was asked amazing questions for 10 minutes before they stopped taking calls. It was the first time I've seen them stop questions so early as the usual format is 10 minutes with the host, then 50 minutes of calls.

    One of my favorite youtube channels was CSPAN Junkie, but it was taken down under dubious reasons in early August. It had 1000's of videos of great clips only from C-SPAN.

  • Re:Yep (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Mr. Freeman (933986) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:07PM (#29609447)
    "sell it for $100+"
    I see you haven't been in college in awhile. $100 is fucking cheap. Book now are at LEAST $175. Books that might actually be useful after college (some are great for reference) are $225 and up. I'm not exaggerating in the slightest here. That's literally what they cost.

    Every new addition has slightly different problem sets and the chapters are rearranged quite a lot. If you've ever taken a look at a book in its 10th or high edition you'll notice that the professor's syllabus for the book is "chapters: 5,4,8,9,1,15" IN THAT ORDER. This is because the first few editions of the book were laid out logically and the updates had significant content. After a few revisions, there isn't much to change and therefore no reason to buy the book. They go ahead and rearrange chapters so that attempting to use an old book will result in lots of confusion when trying to find the homework chapters/reading/problems.

    Profs. hate this just as much as the students do because they have to constantly rework their syllabus to fit the new chapters. This results in the profs wanting to use the same edition book for years and years. The book publishers figured out that this is impossible if they stop publishing their old editions. Thus, profs can't require the old book because there's nowhere to buy it.

    Textbook publishers are swimming in so much cash that it's fucking absurd. It should actually be criminal. Seriously, criminal. I would support a law that required educational textbooks to be placed in the public domain after the original author stops publishing them (and of course define a minimum publishing quantity). There would be plenty of people that would publish and sell these "old" books just above cost.
    This would solve everything actually. Textbook publishers would have to add content to their books for people to want to buy the newest editions... what a shocking concept.

    Oh, and I almost forgot to mention the shitty "online content" that comes bundles with a lot of these books. It's either a CD that has some animations (software is windows only, of course) or, more recently, an "online access code" that gives you the ability to access a few animations/problems online. The CD isn't going to work in a few years because it won't support the new OS, the internet code is only good for a semester. In either case, it's just a scam to add another $20-40 to the overall price of the book.
  • Depressing (Score:3, Interesting)

    by AliasMarlowe (1042386) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:15PM (#29609571) Journal

    I thought the EU parliament operated exactly the same as Congress - direct election of the man (or woman) you want to represent your district.

    Each EU country can choose among systems. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/European_elections#Voting_system [wikipedia.org]
    Almost all use variants on the crappy list system, where you vote for a party, and the party list is usually headed by a bunch of sleazy vampires who would be unelectable as individuals. The list system also results in a really weak link between voters and the elected elite. Arguably, it's as bad as the first-past-the-post system used in US congressional elections and UK parliamentary elections - gerrymandering is no longer needed, being replaced by list precedence, which is determined by internal party machinations. In EU elections, Ireland and Northern Ireland use the much better transferrable vote system, which gives almost as proportional result as the list system, but keeps a strong link between voters and their elected representatives, all of whom are elected as individuals. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_Transferable_Vote [wikipedia.org]

  • Re:Yep (Score:4, Interesting)

    by sjames (1099) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:22PM (#29609675) Homepage

    Way back in high school, I didcovered that my senior calculus book was identical to my FATHER's from college. Sure 20 or so editions had passed, the graphs were colorized, and the typeface was made larger (along with the pages) somewhere in the decades that passed, but the material was identical, right down to the obligatory jokes in the index. I used his because it was lighter weight.

    The book was fine and it's not like basic calculus has changed. I don't see why it needed a new edition every year (other than to make students buy new books rather than used).

    That same year, I also discovered that the sub-freshman and senior English grammar books were identical other than chapter order and the color of the cover.

  • by Just Some Guy (3352) <kirk+slashdot@strauser.com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:25PM (#29609719) Homepage Journal

    If a politician want to be elected, he needs to raise vast sums of money (mostly to pay for the television commercials). Does that mean a politician should, as a condition of receiving that money, accept those "private obligations"?

    That's an interesting point, but irrelevant. In the example of this article, the government takes money from me, ultimately at the barrel of a gun, and turns it over to a private enterprise. Then, I have to give that company more money if I want the benefits of my tax funding. There are some fundamental differences between this case and yours.

  • Re:capable (Score:3, Interesting)

    by TaoPhoenix (980487) <TaoPhoenix@yahoo.com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @03:57PM (#29610089) Journal

    I'll borrow the top half of your line.

    College is hard because not everyone can master the material. What's terrible is the "low$" degrees help subsidize everything else. A lecture class = 2 books, 42 lectures, and "the right to pick the prof's brain for 42 questions per semester". (Much more than that gets you frowned at!) Then this is proven by an evaluation of four papers and three exams. So Hitchiker aside, a college class should cost $250 tops. The entire degree would come in at $8000 + $2000 misc = $10,000.

    Education is going to crash in the next wave as soon as we quit distracting ourselves in our current topics.

  • Re:Seems fair to me. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Taxman415a (863020) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @05:14PM (#29611067) Homepage Journal
    Not only fair, but desperately needed. Not many people know that the NSF funded the creation of 9 math curricula (5 high school and 4 middle school), but part of the idiot requirements of the funding was that they had to be given over to a publisher to publish them. The project could not retain the works and release them for free. I see this ridiculous requirement as essentially stealing high quality math textbooks from the people that paid for them and keeping them away from the students that need them the most.

    More about all the high school texts themselves can be found at http://www.ithaca.edu/compass/ [ithaca.edu]
  • by cetialphav (246516) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @06:05PM (#29611659)

    Accepting a gift from the government is like accepting a gift from the mafia. You might think you know what the conditions of that money/bailout/protection is but those parties can arbitrarily decide to change the deal. The government did that with much of the banking bailout money for the banks. They convinced many healthy banks to take the money so as not to draw too much attention to the unhealthy ones. Then they came back and started talking about regulating executive compensation packages. The healthy banks couldn't give that money back to the government fast enough.

    I guess my point is that refusing money because you don't like the strings is one thing, but when the government starts retroactively adding on strings that is something else. It is hard to know whether the government is offering you a good deal when they can arbitrarily alter it whenever they want.

  • by cetialphav (246516) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @06:37PM (#29611939)

    I think there are several reasons why fewer people attended college in the past than they do today. One reason is that they didn't have to. It used to be that you could come out of high school and get a good job in a factory (e.g. Detroit) or oil fields (Texas and Louisiana) or any number of fields where muscles are a primary resource. Those jobs have greatly diminished so the job market demands a degree to be competitive.

    Another reason is that it is more affordable. While college costs have risen, there is plenty of money available for financial assistance. I was able to fund my undergrad degree with mostly student loans and pay off all of the loans by 3 years after graduation. I considered that a great deal. In the past, for a lower income person to get through school they almost had to get a full scholarship and that meant they had to be brilliant.

    I don't buy the case, though, that college every required above average intelligence to get through. Rich families have been pumping their average intelligence prodigy through Ivy league schools for decades. Getting through college requires discipline and work. It is easier if you are really smart, but anyone should be able to do it. (A steady diet of C's will get you through an undergrad degree.) I've never meet someone who dropped out of college because they were too dumb, but I've met plenty who dropped out because they didn't want to put any effort into it.

  • Re:Seems fair to me. (Score:3, Interesting)

    by apoc.famine (621563) <apoc@famine.gmail@com> on Thursday October 01, 2009 @09:45PM (#29613175) Homepage Journal

    Very good rebuttal. An addendum:
     
    As researchers, we learn from others. We have others critique our works. There are TONS of college researchers who HATE that their research and educational material get locked away in pay-per-article journals or pay-through-the-nose textbooks. They also hate that they can't easily access other people's research and educational materials.
     
    As it is now, Universities generally set up some sort of portal through which students can access all the publishers they're subscribed to. Generally, these portals blow. My standard procedure is to google what I'm looking for, then when I find the exact title, issue, page, head to my college library portal.
     
    It would be a ton easier for all us researchers if we could just let one place (google, or other, as long as they do it well) index and serve research and textbooks.
     
    This semester, I've got a professor who wrote his own textbook. He was unable to get the publisher to sell it at his price. The publisher wants $60 for a ~200 page paperback, 4"x6", first edition, with a fair amount of errors, we're finding out. In the contract, he worked out a deal where he can buy unlimited personal copies for the price of printing, binding, and shipping. So his deal is to just buy his own textbook by the case, and sell it to his students for an even $20.
     
    This guy never wanted to get rich on his textbook - he was frustrated that there was no textbook which served his needs. When he wrote one and tried to get it printed, he wasn't ALLOWED to set the profit margin. (As you can tell, he wanted it very low.) The company he settled on for printing was the one which (somewhat naively) allowed him the option to purchase unlimited copies for himself at near cost. I bet if he had the option for an easy, open method for publication, he, and many others, would jump on it.

  • by rohan972 (880586) on Thursday October 01, 2009 @10:14PM (#29613295)

    Ron Paul certainly has done nothing to show that he knows better than everyone else.

    http://www.house.gov/paul/congrec/congrec2003/cr091003.htm [house.gov]
    Despite the long-term damage to the economy inflicted by the government's interference in the housing market, the government's policy of diverting capital to other uses creates a short-term boom in housing. Like all artificially-created bubbles, the boom in housing prices cannot last forever. When housing prices fall, homeowners will experience difficulty as their equity is wiped out. Furthermore, the holders of the mortgage debt will also have a loss. These losses will be greater than they would have otherwise been had government policy not actively encouraged over-investment in housing. - Ron Paul September 10, 2003

    Because they've done the study.

    The study that made them incapable of predicting the crash or understanding the causes? Yeah, I'll get right on that.

    Because now you're just looking like an idiot.

    Maybe so, but I'm an idiot whose wealth didn't get wiped out. It grieves me to see so many otherwise intelligent people following the expertise of the very people who have just screwed them over. Maybe they should become idiots. If I'm an idiot, at least I'm a lucky idiot.

I wish you humans would leave me alone.

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