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Open Textbooks

Guide to OER textbooks

What Are Open Textbooks?

What Are Open Textbooks?

Open textbooks are a type of open educational resource (OER). OERs are "teaching, learning, and research resources that reside in the public domain or have been released under an intellectual property license that permits their free use and re-purposing by others" (Hewlett Foundation). In the case of OER, the term "open" usually means that an author has chosen to give others permissions to retain, reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute copies of the content, which David Wiley calls the "5Rs of openness" (2014.)

Open textbooks are available for free online. The range of subject coverage can be surprising to faculty, and the number of publications is steadily increasing. Although open textbooks are born digital, students who prefer print books can print all pages themselves or request a printed and bound copy from the university bookstore or other retailer for a small fee (Senack, 2014).

Open Access versus Inclusive Access

Open access means openly licensed and free to use for educational purposes. "Inclusive access" is the name of a textbook rental program from Pearson and other publishers in which books are neither openly licensed nor free. Compare the two models using this chart.

Find an Open Textbook to Adopt

  • Start with the COOL4Ed site, developed by the California Open Educational Resources (CA-OER) Council and includes etextbooks with quality evaluations by CCC, CSU, and UC faculty with expertise in the appropriate discipline.
  • Start with the Open Textbook Library. The OTL provides a list of peer-reviewed and openly licensed textbooks that are currently in use at multiple higher educational institutions, or affiliated with a higher education institution, scholarly society, or professional organization. The OTL also includes instructor reviews for each title.
  • Other collections are listed below under "Where to Find Open Textbooks."

Why Open Textbooks Are Important

It is increasingly difficult for students to buy all their required textbooks. A national study by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that "textbook prices have risen over three times the rate of inflation from January 1977 to June 2015, a 1,041% increase" (Popken, 2015). In recent surveys, students report not buying required textbooks for some courses despite concern for their grades, using student loan money to purchase textbooks, and making course registration decisions based on textbook costs (Senack, 2014; Senack, 2015).

Open textbooks can help improve student access to textbooks and, as a result, improve student success. Fischer, Hilton, Robinson and Wiley (2015) recently studied "nearly 5,000 post-secondary students using OER and over 11,000 control students using commercial textbooks, distributed among ten institutions across the United States, enrolled in 15 different undergraduate courses." They found that:

"In three key measures of student success -- course completion, final grade of C- or higher, course grade -- students whose faculty chose OER generally performed as well or better than students whose faculty assigned commercial textbooks."

Though studies also show that open textbooks save students money -- one report estimated student savings of over $1.5 million dollars through the Open Textbook Library alone (Schaffhauser, 2015)  -- adoption of open textbooks remains low (Allen and Seaman, 2016).

What else is important to know about open textbooks?

  • The quality of open textbooks, like traditional textbooks, varies widely. Knowing reputable publishers can help. Some major universities have undertaken open textbook publishing initiatives, including Rice University's OpenStax, the State University of New York (SUNY), and the University of British Columbia. Additionally, some open textbook collections, such as the Open Textbook Library, include faculty reviews to ease and expedite decision-making when considering the adoption of an open textbook for a course.


Individual textbook prices often range between $200 and $400 (Senack, 2016). Cost of textbooks is a major concern for U.S. college students, according to a 2016 report of open textbook costs published by the Student PIRGs.


While not all open textbooks include supplemental materials, some do. Relevant supplemental materials may also be available for free from an OER repository (see below), or may be available for a fee from other providers.



  • Open textbooks offer several advantages. They are licensed to allow addition of material so that current information can be added to the text. Open textbooks are also licensed to be "remixed" so that information from a range of sources can be combined by instructors and shared with students.

Did you know that Tennessee law requires that "Faculty members consider the least costly practices in assigning  textbooks  and  course  materials,  such  as  adopting  the  least  expensive  edition  of  a  textbook  available  when  educational  content  is  comparable  to  a  more  costly  edition  as  determined  by  the  faculty  member …” (Tennessee Code §49-7-141)?

No Open Textbook in Your Field?

If there isn't an open textbook in your field, you can still help students. Place an extra copy of your textbook on course reserve in the library, making it available to individual students for loan periods of 2 to 24 hours.

Also, the Open Ed Portal features a page about "Faculty Choice." Use it to help compare options when choosing sources for readings and assignments.

Where to Find Open Textbooks & Other OER

Where to Find Open Textbooks

Note: A Google search for [your subject] + open textbooks often yields results, too. Look for titles endorsed by an academic society, funded by a foundation or grant, or assigned at number of colleges or universities.


Where to Find Supplemental Materials

Slide decks, problem sets, videos, and other supplemental files may be available from OER collections, including:



Allen, Elaine and Jeff Seaman. 2016. Opening the Textbook: Educational Resources in U.S. Higher Education, 2015-16.Babson Park, MA: Babson Survey Research Group. Accessed July 25, 2016,

Allen, Nicole. 2010. “A Cover to Cover Solution: How Open Textbooks Are the Path to Textbook Affordability.” The Student PIRGs, September. Accessed July 10, 2016,

Fischer, Lane, John Hilton III, T. Jared Robinson, and David A. Wiley. "A Multi-Institutional Study of the Impact of Open Textbook Adoption on the Learning Outcomes of Post-Secondary Students," Journal of Computing in Higher Education 27 (2015): 159-172. Accessed May 26, 2017, doi:10.1007/s12528-015-9101-x.

Popken, Ben. 2015. “College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977." NBC, August 6. Accessed June 12, 2016,

Schaffhauser, Dian. 2015. “Open Textbook Network Saves Students $1.5 Million, Inspires OER Senate Bill.” Campus Technology, October 27, Accessed June 15, 2016,

Senack, Ethan. 2014. "Fixing the Broken Textbook Market: How Students Respond to High Textbook Costs and Demand Alternatives." The Student PIRGs, January 2014. Accessed June 12, 2016,

Senack, Ethan. 2016. "Covering the Cost: Why We can No Longer Afford to Ignore High Textbook Prices." The Student PIRGs, February 2016. Accessed July 24, 2016,

The Open Textbooks Network. "Impact and Benefits." Accessed June 14, 2016

Wiley, David. 2014. "The Access Compromise and the 5th R." Iterating Toward Openness, March 5. Accessed October 11, 2017,

The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. "Open Educational Resources.”  Accessed June 14, 2016,



For more information, contact your Scholarly Communication & Publishing Librarian, Rachel Caldwell

This LibGuide was created in 2016 by Abbey Elder, Information Science graduate student, with the supervision of Rachel Caldwell.

Free to Reuse with Credit

Free to Reuse with Credit

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

Creative Commons License

Source: Rachel Caldwell, University of Tennessee Libraries. 


The author of this page in not a lawyer and the information provided does not constitute legal advice.