Free access to information is a very hot topic, particularly in the academic field where many believe that putting studies behind a paywall is unethical.
This has led to the rise of ‘pirate’ sites like Sci-Hub, that aim to provide free access to information and education, for the betterment of the world.
But, when one considers how these sites operate, even this noble aim can prove controversial.
Much of the content offered by these types of platforms infringes copyright. That’s often publishing giants such as Elsevier, who in return have waged war on Sci-Hub in particular. Just this week, yet another blocking order against the site was handed down in France, with operator Alexandra Elbakyan pledging to continue as usual.
But what if there was another way to access academic content, studies, and textbooks without having to resort to piracy?
In 2018, several prestigious European research councils announced a major push for Open Access publishing, with a plan to limit the power of major copyright holders and ‘tear down academia’s paywalls.’
And, just this week, there was more news for academics and students to become cautiously excited about – the reintroduction of the Affordable College Textbook Act.
On Thursday, U.S. Senators Dick Durbin (D-IL), Angus King (I-ME), Tina Smith (D-MN), and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ), along with U.S. Representative Joe Neguse (D-CO-02), introduced bicameral legislation with the aim of making high-quality textbooks available to students, professors, and the public, for free.
“One of the most basic higher education costs to students is often overlooked: textbooks,” Durbin said, citing figures from The College Board estimating costs of $1,240 per student, per year.
“In Illinois, we know federal support for open textbooks can be successful. Expanding this program to more states will mean lower costs for students to incur. This bill will help prevent the high cost of textbooks from putting students’ academic success at risk.”
Senator Smith said that when meeting with college students, they often talk about the cost of textbooks and how difficult it is to afford them.
“Sometimes textbooks are so expensive that students take the chance and don’t purchase them at all, and try to make it work without the needed material,” she said. According to U.S. PRIG, 65% of students choose to go without textbooks.
Of course, others resort to piracy too. Over the years we’ve reported on several initiatives to provide free or cheap textbooks to students, but many have either faded away or ended in criminal convictions for their operators.
There are even patents out there that attempt to prevent students from sharing their own books with others. Clearly, open alternatives are preferable to all of the above.
As per information released Thursday, the Affordable College Textbook Act, among other things, has these ambitions, should it eventually pass:
- Authorizes a grant program, similar to the Open Textbooks Pilot, to support projects at colleges and universities to create and expand the use of open textbooks with priority for projects that will achieve the highest savings for students;
- Ensures that any open textbooks or educational materials created using grant funds will be freely and easily accessible to the public, including individuals with disabilities;
- Strengthens existing price transparency so students can easily identify classes that use open textbooks when they register;
While the passing of the Act certainly won’t end piracy overnight, giving students options that don’t involve compromising their already limited finances or forcing them towards popular search engines such as Library Genesis has to be considered a step forward.