Anyone who’s footing the bill for textbooks knows they’re expensive. It’s not uncommon for one book to cost hundreds of U.S. dollars. The books’ prices skyrocketed more than 800 percent between 1978 and 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, outpacing increases in the cost of medical services (575 percent) and new homes (325 percent). Typically a college student spends as much as $1,200 each year on textbooks.
Four electrical engineering professors—all IEEE members—decided to help students by offering PDFs of three popular books they’ve coauthored that are used in undergraduate EE classes. They are Fellow Cynthia M. Furse, Senior Member Michel Maharbiz, Life Fellow Fawwaz Ulaby, and Member Andrew E. Yagle.
The three books, offered under the banner of the Free Textbook Initiative, are Circuit Analysis and Design, Image Processing for Engineers, and Signals and Systems: Theory and Applications. The PDF-only versions are free, and accompanying software can be added for $20. Those who prefer a hard copy can order print-on-demand versions for $60 to $75.
The initiative works with the University of Michigan Press, which subsidizes the cost of managing the project.
“Over the past 30 years, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed, often burdening students and parents with huge student loans,” says Ulaby, a professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. “This led students to start selling their textbooks at the end of the semester—which created a used-book market. Consequently, a copy of one book was getting used by three to four students instead of only one, prompting the publishers to increase their prices even more.”
More than 100 U.S. universities have adopted the Free Textbook Initiative volumes to use for their courses and instructed students how to download them. The books have been downloaded by 10,000 engineering and computing engineering students, according to Ulaby.
“Many thanks to you and your co-authors for taking the initiative to offer your books at literally no cost. It is truly a magnanimous gesture,” one instructor wrote in a message to Ulaby.
The primary universities supporting the initiative are the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Michigan; and the University of Utah. The books are updated regularly, and the authors respond to questions from instructors.
The initiative is similar to OpenStax, the free textbook program offered by Rice University, in Houston, for biology, chemistry, and math courses.
GIVING UP ROYALITIES
The initiative was launched after the authors settled a lawsuit they had brought against a publisher over royalty fees for two of the textbooks. The publisher retained copyright and continued to market the books, but the authors won the right to publish and sell derivative versions of both books through a publisher of their choosing.
“A quick calculation led us to conclude that if we made the books available to students for free, for every dollar we gave up in royalties the students saved $35,” Ulaby says. He estimates that downloads for the three books have saved students about $2.5 million so far.
Offering textbooks for free comes with hurdles. For one thing, writing an engineering textbook takes about four years, Ulaby says—which means not many professors will attempt one in the first place. He also cites a statistic that shows only one out of every four undergraduate textbooks is successful.
“In the past, popular textbooks not only brought authors prestige and name recognition but also respectable royalty income,” he says. “Today that income has dwindled because publishers are struggling against the used-book market.”
Universities could do more to encourage faculty, Ulaby says. He notes, for example, that OpenStax gives authors a monetary award for submitting a textbook manuscript.
The Free Textbook Initiative does not yet have the resources to offer a similar incentive. But Ulaby would like to make more books available and invites EE colleagues to submit manuscripts to him. He says the submissions will be reviewed, edited and, if accepted, published through the University of Michigan.