Friday, January 09, 2004

Textbook costs

Pharyngula recently lamented discussed the high cost of textbooks, and I agree with his comments. Textbooks are quite expensive, and many students have trouble paying for them. Courses cost $18 a unit where I teach, so students regularly spend much more on their books than they do on registration fees for the course.

However, I’ve recently had the opportunity to see just how much work goes into making a textbook by participating in a focus group for an upcoming 2nd edition of a biology text (Freeman). In some respects I’m now amazed at how relatively cheap modern textbooks are.

Modern introductory biology textbooks are usually at least 500 pages long, printed in full color, and contain professionally reviewed material that is usually no more than 2-3 years out of date at the time of printing. All the biology books I’ve recently looked at include comprehensive student CDs that contain supplemental content for every chapter in the book (usually including animations), as well as a book website with review questions and more content. In addition to the textbook and student materials, the publishers of books I’ve looked at generally provide instructors with a tremendous amount of supplemental material, including pre-printed transparencies, printed instructor’s guides (usually including a test bank and chapter outlines, at the least), instructor CDs full of content (test questions, discussion questions, figures from the book, animations, video clips, PowerPoint presentations, etc), course management software packs (e.g. content for WebCT, Blackboard, etc.), and access to instructor-only areas of the publisher’s website. At the focus group I attended it was clear that these supplemental materials take a lot of time (and thus money) to produce.

In my own teaching I find many of these supplemental materials helpful. However, I wonder how widely used they are, and also how much they add to the cost of the book.

Thus, I’m of two minds on the issue – on one hand I see my students spending >$100 on textbooks for my class and cringe, but on the other hand I can understand why the prices are so high.

Note: The focus group trip mentioned above was paid for by the publisher, and I have also been paid for reviews of biology textbooks, so I’m not entirely free of conflicting interests here.

(Edited to clarify Pharyngula's position based on his clarification post.)

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