Expensive Textbooks Stressing You Out? The Need for Open Educational Resources


In current times in our economy, inflation has skyrocketed and affected almost every American, and unfortunately education is not excluded. I have experienced some hardships with part of my income contributing to my education, as it is a new expense I have not experienced before. I’ve been living in New York City my whole life and with it being the most expensive city in the world I’ve struggled a bit financially.[1] For the spring semester I received the Federal Pell Grant and only had to pay $500 for tuition but for the following semester the grant was cut significantly and now I must pay most of my tuition. Alongside an expensive city,  there is also expensive rent and being a student with a part time job, it can become stressful living.[2] Although there has been some adjusting, all my classes use free academic resources so there isn’t an additional expense that I need to worry about. Providing open access to academic journals and articles can benefit society by making knowledge accessible to students who lack resources.

History/ background

If we are going back to the beginning of why there is a discussion surrounding OER’s, it starts with copyright laws. The most recent copyright law was passed in 1976 and in later years Congress has made accommodating acts to accompany it. Copyright allows people to reserve and obtain all rights to their work.[3] Only they are allowed to distribute their creations and no one else without their approval or permission. While some may perceive copyright as a modern concept, it stems back to the mid 1400’s[XG3]  with the European development of movable type.[4] The printing press allowed for spreading thoughts and opinions--the most popular being the Bible--faster than ever. Before the printing press, any form of tangible literature was done by hand, which was a slow and tedious process. The printing press raised conversation about ownership and the credibility of authors, who had been struggling to get paid, especially because there was no protection of their work. This conversation culminated in the Statute of Anne named after the queen of that time. This law is the first modern copyright statute that granted British authors copyright instead of the publisher. This laid the foundation for future copyright laws in the UK and U.S.[5]

There have been different modified versions of copyright laws in the U.S. As previously mentioned, the most recent copyright law was passed in 1976. Although the law itself has not been amended, there have been other acts to get more “with the times”: one prime example is the Copyright Term Extension Act (CTEA), which  was passed in 1995 to keep up with the European nations’ own copyright law that allowed people to control their work for seventy years after their death, while the U.S allowed for fifty[6]. The passing of CTEA, now allows for Americans to have rights to their work for seventy years after death[7]. A similar extension act was the Sonny Bono CTEA which was later passed in 1998 to mostly cater to big corporations such as Disney, which extends the rights to ninety-five years after publication. Although this only applies if the creation was published before 1978, anything published after 1977 would continue to be seventy years after death. [8] While these acts are to ensure creators are credited and paid,[9] it wasn’t written with the thought of the Internet or the World Wide Web (web for short) which would soon rise in popularity around the world.

The Birth of Open Access

Aaron Swartz at Boston Wikipedia Meetup, 2009-08-18

Once Tim Berners-Lee made his invention of the Web available for all the world to use, the topic of copyright came back into question in America again.[10] From these discussions, the free culture movement emerged. The movement’s members believe that the web’s contents should be made easily accessible and not be so restricted to the public. Aaron Swartz was one of many free culture movement members who criticized the restrictions that copyright had on many works, especially with respect to educational materials.[11] Swartz was a programmer and political activist who engaged in a case correlating with copyright, around the time of his untimely death. [12]

Swartz and others realized that universities had many academic journals and scholarly articles available to students and faculty, but that paywalls were restricting the access to those same articles to others outside of American colleges.  When Swartz realized this,  he declared it to be unfair to other students who didn’t have the same privilege and decided to voice his opinion in a public document called the "Guerilla Open Access Manifesto." This manifesto was written by Swartz and others to express the disapproval of the paywall that sites have on scholarly articles. Throughout the document, they try to convince university students to see the disparity of knowledge of other students who are without these scholarly materials and to share them to close that gap:

you need not — indeed, morally, you cannot — keep this privilege for yourselves. You have a duty to share it with the world. And you have: trading passwords with colleagues, filling download requests for friends… as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn't immoral — it's a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.[13]

In 2011 the government decided to propose the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). This act was proposed as a “solution” to make sure websites followed copyright laws and if they didn’t make sure their site avoided any mistake, it would be restricted or completely shut down.[14] This means if someone uploaded a song to a site and forgot to credit the source, the entire site would be shut down for everyone and wouldn’t be accessible. Many, including Swartz, believed the act to be ludicrous and protested it. SOPA never made it to law due to the overwhelming opposition to it.[10]

During the protesting of SOPA, Swartz was facing criminal charges for illegally downloading millions of academic journals and articles from JSTOR by having access to MIT’s database. JSTOR is a site where they have accumulated many academic journals and resources only free if one is a U.S university student or else you must pay to have access to an article. While downloading some articles is okay, downloading in bulk is considered a federal offence. Many more charges were brought because of Swartz’ openness of OERs and the possibility that he was going to publish the articles for everyone to see. Many of Swartz’ family, friends, and fans protested the charges saying the initial act was proven but not the publishing of the pages. After two years with the government still wanting to put him in prison and his deteriorating mental health, Swartz ended his life.[10]

The advocating of Swartz and others has left a legacy behind. Starting the conversation of open education and OERs for all students so there isn’t a continuation of inaccessibility for those who want to learn. A beneficiary of the open access movement is Jack Andraka. Andraka was fourteen when he decided to invent a device to detect pancreatic cancer early on. When someone is diagnosed with pancreatic cancer it is usually too late to do anything about it. Andraka conducted his research on academic resources that were free and easily accessible to the public. In 2013, he successfully managed to make the first prototypes to be shipped out for others to use and credits Swartz on his accessibility to accomplish it.  

Open Access and Education

 Swartz and others continued to rally behind open access for educational materials or Open Education Resources (OERs). OERs are essentially textbooks and resources that are free, and anyone can access them. OERs can be revised and edited by others because of being in the public domain or the author had laxed some of their rights. OERs are essential because of the cost of college tuition rising, the separate cost of textbooks and resources deprives students who won’t be able to afford them.

City Tech is one CUNY college implementing the use of OERs and it conducted research on student performance and retention rates in their Undergraduate Engineering Departments.[15] Having easy accessibility allows for students to gain the knowledge they need for their classes and not have the extra cost of textbooks holding them back. The study showed that the implementation of OER’s helped engineering students save money and continue staying in school. Although the study shows that failing and D-grades haven’t changed, Zhao and his team make it a point that it didn’t decrease student performances.

There is also the case of students around the world not having access to American OERs because of the high prices. and because OERs authors and researchers must waive some rights for people to access them.  Professor Emeritus in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology at Cornell University. John McMurry did just that. McMurry wrote a chemistry textbook that many students have used around the world. When he felt the need to move on from his publisher, he decided to make Organic Chemistry a digital OER so students can have access to the textbook without the $100 price tag. Organic Chemistry has been translated into multiple languages and used many countries outside of the U.S, finally giving accessibility to students not just in the U.S, but in countries like India and Japan to reap the benefits of the knowledge that is out there.[16]

Although there are many that see the benefit of open access materials, such as the cost saving aspect, there are others who aren’t much on board or question the positive outcomes of it. The University of Buffalo (UB) conducted research on OERs, and the views of its financial values compared to more traditional textbooks and journals. The authors of the UB research noticed that even students who appreciated and found value of OERs comparable to those of traditional resources, wouldn’t pay the same amount for them. Even with many students favoring OERs, there were students who didn’t find them comparable and even believed they had less educational value because of them being accessible and free. Many seemed to see that something with no financial value equates to no beneficial or educational value. But even so, the researchers admit that the likely positives of OERs outweigh the negatives of it.[17]


Many people have the want and need to learn and unfortunately there are ways for them to be blocked from an education. If we’re blocking people from learning and seeking out solutions to humanity, what does that say about us? We need to allow academic resources to be available for those who may not be able to spend over $500 on textbooks.[18] Thankfully there are states starting to acknowledge the need for OERs such as California. Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law that a budget of $115 million will be used to lower the cost of textbooks at the college level so it won’t continue to be a financial burden for students.[19] Members of the pro OERs have said not only will it benefit college students but high school students as well. Giving them this new opportunity will allow for them to research advanced topics and careers. Allowing this accessibility won’t just help our wallets but will help us as a society. If we continue to rally for OERs we can soon see them being implemented across the country or even better, the world.

References edit

  1. Tong, Goh Chiew. “New York Overtakes Hong Kong as the Most Expensive City in the World for Expats, New Survey Shows.CNBC, 8 June 2023,
  2. Bahney, Anna. “Manhattan Rents Reach (Another) Record High | CNN Business.” CNN, 18 May 2023, www.cnn.com/2023/05/18/homes/manhattan-rents-april/index.html.
  3. Peters, Justin. The Idealist: Aaron Swartz and the Rise of Free Culture on the Internet. First Scribner hardcover edition., Scribner, 2016. 129.
  4. Peters, p. 18.
  5. Peters, 19-20.
  6. Peters, p. 10.
  7. Peters, p. 110.
  8. Peters, p.119.
  9. Knappenberger, Brian. The Internet’s Own Boy. Ro*Co Films, 2014.
  10. a b c Knappenberger, Brian. The Internet’s Own Boy. Ro*Co Films, 2014
  11. Peters, pp. 3-4.
  12. Peters, p.1; p.10.
  13. Swartz, Aaron. “Guerilla Open Access Manifesto”. Internet Archive, 2011.
  14. "H.R.3261 - 112th Congress (2011-2012): Stop Online Piracy Act." Congress.gov, Library of Congress, 16 December 2011, https://www.congress.gov/bill/112th-congress/house-bill/3261.
  15.   Zhao, Yonchao, et al. "Impact of Open Educational Resources (OER) on Student Academic Performance and Retention Rates in Undergraduate Engineering Departments." CUNY Academic Works, 2020.
  16. Knox, Liam. “Popular Chemistry Textbook’s New Edition Will Be Free.” Inside Higher Ed | Higher Education News, Events and Jobs, 10 Aug. 2022, www.insidehighered.com/news/2022/08/11/popular-chemistry-textbooks-new-edition-will-be-free.  
  17. Dimeo, Jean. "Saving Students Money." Inside Higher Education. June 27, 2017. https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/article/2017/06/28/report-saving-students-money-oer
  18. Abramovich, Samuel, and Mark McBride. “Open Education Resources and Perceptions of Financial Value.” The Internet and Higher Education, vol. 39, 2018, pp. 33–38, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.iheduc.2018.06.002. p.33.
  19. Cavanagh, Sean. “New California Law Pours Money into Open Educational Resources.” Market Brief, 30 June 2022, marketbrief.edweek.org/marketplace-k-12/new-california-law-pours-money-open-educational-resources/.