Boundless and the open educational resources movement are threatening publishers. - Slate Magazine
"N. Gregory Mankiw is one of the most well-known economists in American politics. A Harvard professor, he chaired George W. Bush’s Council of Economic Advisers from 2003 to 2005 and served as a senior adviser for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign. Many observers saw him among the top contenders to replace Ben Bernanke as chair of the Federal Reserve in a Romney administration. But for hundreds of thousands of undergraduates, Mankiw is better known as the author of Principles of Economics, one of the best-selling college textbooks in America. Politics may have made Mankiw famous, but his book—list price: $293.95—has made him a very wealthy man. The Internet has made access to many kinds of information more flexible and less expensive... Creators and distributors of intellectual property have struggled to balance the erosion of old business models with opportunities to sell their products in new and interesting ways. Yet the college textbook industry has not only managed to insulate itself from this trend—it has moved in the opposite direction, using digital content as a way to charge more money... Now a startup called Boundless.com is trying to change that with a service it calls 'textbook replacement' ... The open educational resources (OER) movement has produced high-quality texts, videos, charts, problem sets, and other useful content in a huge array of subjects... In fact, there’s so much open content out there now that sorting through it all can be daunting. Boundless curates OER and organizes it in a way that mirrors popular textbooks... Naturally, the small group of major publishers that controls the lion’s share of the $7 billion textbook market is now trying sue Boundless out of existence. They don’t argue that Boundless actually copies what’s written in their textbooks, because it doesn’t. Instead, they argue that the order of chapters is sacrosanct—as if deciding to put 'Principles of Supply and Demand' before 'Elasticity' is so complicated and critical that it’s worth $293.95. One of the litigants is Cengage, publisher of Principles of Economics. In the legal complaint filed with the court, the publishers explain, 'The Research Papers in Economics project has ranked Dr. Mankiw as the 25th most influential economist in the world based on his academic contributions.' But if that really mattered, they would have no reason to sue Boundless, since consumers would be willing to pay a premium for Mankiw’s expertise. In fact, publishers are simply protecting the rents they’re extracting from college students. The college textbook market is unusual in that the person deciding what people should buy—the professor—isn’t the one actually doing the buying. It’s akin to prescription drugs and suffers from many of the same excesses, with large companies vying to protect highly-profitable blockbuster products and employing legions of salespeople to influence the relatively small number of agents who decide what millions of consumers will buy. The Boundless lawsuit highlights a critical aspect of higher education as constituted today: There are really two different higher education systems within the standard four-year curriculum, each with very different goals and underlying economic models. In the first system, students take a broad range of standard courses. According to a U.S. Department of Education study, more than 20 percent of all credits earned by college graduates come in just 13 courses, including calculus, Spanish, biology, and intro to economics. These are essentially commodity courses, based on widely accepted concepts and information. No matter where you go to college, you’ll learn to conjugate Spanish verbs in more or less the same way. In the second system, students take specialized upper-division courses often taught by professors with expertise in the subject. This is where students specialize academically, and where colleges really distinguish themselves in the depth and quality of education. The problem for book publishers—and for colleges themselves—is that the first system is much more profitable and more replaceable than the second..."