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Online books allow authors to more readily keep their publications up to date

E-books cut physical and financial strains for some college students

Published: Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Updated: Wednesday, October 15, 2008 08:10

When Rice University engineering professor Rich Baraniuk decided to publish his work on digital signal processing in 1999, he was concerned that the two-year publication process would make it impossible to keep the information up to date. Instead, he found collaborators in his field and published his work online alongside theirs by creating an online network called "Connexions."

Not only did Baraniuk's decision solve his own problem, but it also may alleviate the inevitable strain — financially and physically — that textbooks inevitably pose on college students.

Baraniuk's brainchild marked the beginning of a site that now receives 552,000 visitors a month from 194 countries. Although the site began at Rice, the vast majority of users now come from outside the institution.

From a legal standpoint, the site operates around the Creative Commons License, under which authors can post their work to be viewed and reused. Nearly 1,000 authors have put their content on the site.

"There are many Creative Common Licenses," said Joel Thierstein, associate Provost of Innovative Scholarly Communication at Rice and executive director of Connexions. "Some are more open than others.


We use the most open license there is, which is the Creative Commons Attribution License, under which you can reuse work for any purpose as long as you attribute the work to the author."

Connexions works to create online communities for specific areas of study. "One of the ways that our site addresses the change in education is that it makes a community of practice to develop around a specific discipline," Thierstein said. "If there is interest, for example, in electrical engineering, they can come together and look at each others content to create new content and mix and match the content in the database."

While Tufts has yet to use networks like Connexions, sites such as Blackboard or Safari Books Online similarly allow teachers to post information and work for students.

"I would never discourage [using books online]. I would encourage it depending on the particular book," Computer Science Lecturer Ben Hescott said. "If I knew that the book was completely available and that it was saving the student money, then I would be all for it. Many times, what they are leaving out are exercises or solutions or things like that to try to get you to buy the book."

The publication of updated versions of textbooks can be a slow process, which makes online publication a critical resource, particularly in fields with quickly changing curriculum.

"Computer science is changing quite a bit. In lower level classes, the research doesn't change that much so the textbooks are the best recourse for outside material," Hescott said. "For a higher level class, there will be a basic textbook for the basic material, but the current research published in online journals and conference proceedings is available for Tufts students."

The computer science department typically publishes its work in these online journals, which are readily accessible to students through Tufts' subscription. Some faculty use Safari Books Online — which enables publishers to release portions of books — for their classes.

But departments with less rapidly evolving course material are less likely to turn to the online book world — and some believe online book viewing might make reading more difficult.

"I think that putting books online could be a good solution [to the high prices of textbooks]," Assistant History Professor Alisha Rankin said. "My concern is that students don't read as closely when they read online.

"[But] a lot of it depends on the publisher of the book … if I had permission from a publisher, I would be happy to [put my work online]," Rankin continued.

For students, online textbooks provide a cheaper alternative to textbooks.

"I think that having books online is only beneficial to my study habits, without any negative effects," freshman Nitin Shrivastava said. "I feel that the specificity will not change, and if I need to, I can still print it out myself, which is still more cost-effective than buying the book … [And] I wouldn't be less inclined to study if it were a pdf versus a book."

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