Textbooks Make Me Feel Dirty

August 3rd, 2015

ChemBark Ed on Dollar BillWe’re three weeks away from the start of the semester at SLU, and this time of year always brings the first wave of e-mails from the next class of students. While these messages vary in length and tone, they can generally be distilled to one question: “Professor, what do I really need to buy for your course?”

Can I use the previous edition of the text? Do I really need a model kit? Do I really need the model kit on sale in the bookstore? Can I share my model kit with a friend? Do I have to buy the subscription for the online homework?

Whenever I read these e-mails, a part of me dies inside. I feel their pain. They’ve just paid their bills for thousands of dollars in tuition, with two more years of it to go. And now, after absorbing that massive hit, they’ve got to scrounge up another $375 dollars for my coursepack. It’s a slap in the face.

The cost of these materials makes me sick, and the prices are rising at an astounding rate. For my college organic text, I paid less than half of what students are asked to pay today. Are today’s books really worth double my book, which remains a valued reference on my office bookcase? Has our understanding of introductory organic chemistry really changed that significantly in the last 15 years? No.

I’ll be teaching Organic Chemistry I for Majors again and using the same coursepack we did when I arrived at SLU.  It contains: (i) the textbook, (ii) the solutions manual, (iii) a plastic model kit, and (iv) a subscription to the online homework assignments. That all costs about $375 when purchased together.

Three hundred and seventy-five American dollars!

While I could easily point the finger at the publishing companies as the villains that they are, ultimately, they are not the problem—I am. After all, I’m the one who assigns the books for my course. And for that, I’m truly sorry, but allow me to explain:

While there are a dozen good organic texts, I think we can all agree that it makes sense for a class to adopt a single textbook. As a teacher, I literally want everyone on the same page, with a precise understanding of what information everyone is responsible for. In the absence of a strong external force, inertia will govern this decision. It makes sense for an instructor or department to stick with the book it used the previous year, because the switching costs of an instructor having to rework the syllabus, slides, and order of practice problems can introduce a lot of unnecessary work. And there are benefits to students when we use the same book as the year before, because they can buy a used version. Furthermore, they can get something out of borrowing their friends’ old notes and exams.

Now, here’s where the publishing industry appears and sinks in its fangs. The used-book market poses a serious threat to their revenue stream, because they only make money by selling new copies. It’s the bookstores and old students who make money from the used-book market. So, what do the publishers do? Release a new edition! By releasing a new edition, the publishers can (i) find professors to drive orders of new books and (ii) stop printing the old edition so colleges can’t find enough used copies of it, forcing adoption of the new edition.

These new editions usually contain few or no substantive changes relative to the previous edition. It can be as silly as shuffling content between chapters, renumbering the practice problems, and adding a few new photos. Case in point is the 4th edition of the text I use now. Anyone with the 3rd edition would have no problem following my class, because hardly anything changed.

Another thing that burns me up is that by the 4th edition of a text, you’d expect all of the errors would have been ferreted out and corrected by now. Have they? No. I maintain a list of errata in the text on my webpage and use it to show my students that organic chemistry must be hard—not even the textbook’s author can get it right.

Textbook publishers erode the used-book market to drive the sale of expensive new editions, but professors are complicit in maintaining this skewed market. Why? Because we are the ones that assign these textbooks as required course materials. And you know why professors don’t especially care? Because we get our textbooks for free. The publishers will just give away a $250 text to us because they want us to force 200 students to buy it. They’ll even sweeten the deal by giving us free lecture slides that correspond to the text. The sales technique is brilliant: make life as easy as possible for the professors and give them free stuff so that they will force their students to buy your product. While it’s not exactly a kickback, it’s not terribly far from it.

So, the textbook market is not a fair one as far as students are concerned. Students can’t shop around for the highest quality book at the best price; they are essentially required to buy whatever textbook their professor decides at whatever price the publisher is charging. And as if that wasn’t enough to make you sick, publishers send instructors e-mails like the one I received a month ago:

From: <Textbook Publisher>
Subject: When it’s required, they’re prepared required_advert_450Disgustingly shameless. I feel gross just reading it.

Hey, instructor buddy! You want your students to learn? Well, then you need to *require* them to purchase our expensive online add-on! And don’t worry—we’ll give instructors free access to the system, of course!

Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that authors and publishers perform a valuable service. While our understanding of first-year organic chemistry hasn’t changed in 30 years, our ability to make instructive figures has certainly improved to the point that no one would choose a text from the 1980s over those offered today. So yeah, publishers should be compensated for the materials they produce. But at the same time, there is a limit to what is reasonable. Issuing a ‘new’ edition every three years at $375 a pop is ridiculous.

So, students, please forgive me. I know the system is unfair, but there really isn’t a good alternative at the moment. I would much rather you spend $375 on a nice iPad and download the coursepack for free. Unfortunately, the free organic texts in existence pale in comparison to the expensive texts out there, and the time required for a professor to produce all of the necessary materials for a class is too much to do in one shot. I hope you will believe me when I say that I’m working on it, but it’s going to take some time. Every year I produce a little more material and build towards the goal of obviating the need for an expensive text. Give me 20 years and that should become reality. I hope someone else beats me to it.

37 Responses to “Textbooks Make Me Feel Dirty”

  1. Bob Says:

    I did my undergraduate chem degree in New Zealand. No text books were required – anything in the exam would be in the professors lectures, and we were supposed to take notes (some profs gave us a printout of their slides). There was a recommended textbook for extra reading, but several copies of this were kept on “close reserve” in the university’s library.

    I’m now a postdoc in North America, and the textbook thing seems like daylight robbery!

  2. Jan H jensen Says:

    I stopped using textbooks in my courses. Instead I make video lectures which is much, much faster than writing detailed notes. I can typically make enough videos for to cover 1/3 – 1/2 of the semester in “one go” i.e. 2-3 weeks of where I do little else (typically summer). The wast majority of the time goes into making the ppt slides themselves. You can see some examples here: https://www.youtube.com/playlist?list=PLVxAq6ZYPp31uDnEw1A1HRxq-lfwFnwBs

    One of my colleagues took a different approach. He videotaped his lectures one year (a TA got extra teaching hours for this) and then used them the following year.

  3. Matt T Says:

    I still admire one of my professors who had a couple Dover Classics for his stat mech course. I mean, it’s stat mech, a Dover Classic will have the same information!

    More Dover Classics, please!

  4. opsomath Says:

    There are plenty of good alternatives. For instance, require the (n-2) edition instead – $25 instead of $200. If you need, supplement with a 3rd party instructional source – we use Sapling, and I don’t hate it. Total cost $65.

    If you’re saying you don’t have time to do that stuff, I understand, but that’s really a statement about the demands that are placed on you as a new faculty member rather than a statement about the state of instructional publishing, which is predatory and terrible.

  5. John Spevacek Says:

    Keep in mind that the students are not just buying a textbook, they are buying memories.

    As you said so yourself, “… my book, which remains a valued reference on my office bookcase…” You used it what, about 6 years ago? I used mine about 30 years ago and still refer to it. Why? Because having spent so much time bent over it, I know every thing in it and where it is. If I were to go to another text, I would have to using the index, etc to find what I was looking for, assuming it was even in there.

    As you might guess, I am also against anyone selling their texts unless they are leaving the field entirely, and even then…

  6. Anne Glenn Says:

    I agree with you completely! I decided that the textbooks had gotten too expensive and the editions were coming out way too fast. I do POGIL so they have to get the workbook, but I’m going to be using Sapling learning ($40) and tell them they can get whatever edition of the text they want. We’ll see how it goes.

  7. David Says:

    Here in Germany it seems to be very similar to Bobs Situation. Organic chemistry I is a lecture with powerpoint slides, which is usually passed on from professor to professor. They all adjust it a bit, but it is mostly the same. They usually recommend 3-6 books, but these are not needed, just for further reading and they are overlapping, so no students needs all of them. The library holds usually 20-30 copies of these books in the latest or second latest edition, which is usually enough for everybody who is interested to get one (organic chemistry is taught to about 300 students here, but only about 120-150 are chemists). Exercises are created by scientific employees or PhD students and also reused from the last years. The solutions of the exercises are discussed in small groups with the students and posted online.
    Learning and understanding the lecture and the exercises is usually enough for them to pass the exam.
    I guess the amount of material, that is taught, can be quite different, here it is only very basic organic chemistry, without cross couplings or metathesis. But I still think it should be possible to have a course, where you just need one book and a ball&stick model. Are the other things really needed?

    Additionally, it looks like your students are being ripped of quite badly by the publishers. The Clayden (standard book over here) is 90 € (98$) for the German version and 49€ (54$) for the English version. The big seller with the yellow a lists it for 135$ in the US. Maybe your students should start importing those books from Germany %)

  8. bad wolf Says:

    Undergraduate tuition, SLU, one year: $38,000 (N/I room & board, etc)

    Relative portion @$375 in textbooks: 1%. That’s not much to lose sleep over.

    Cost calculator–Textbooks, per semester: $400. Okay, there you’re consuming 87% of their cost.

  9. Free Radical Says:

    A colleague of mine said a big-name university looked into writing their own open-source textbook, but their lawyers suggested not to. Textbook companies would sue their ass off, claiming that the content could be found in their own texts. Even if frivolous, it would be expensive.

  10. Wenthold Says:

    Use Delmar Larsen’s ChemWiki to make a WikiText


    Couple it with an on-line homework package and you have it all. You can create content or use what is there. Design your own course or even use one that is already there.

    That’s what we’ve done at Purdue with two of our sophomore Orgo classes.

  11. Wenthold Says:

    I taught organic last year without requiring a textbook. Mostly using on-line resources. Some students did get textbooks, and I recommended finding whatever edition of any author. Second semester, I offered to loan them one of mine (I have about 30 organic texts on the office shelf), and will do that again this year.

    More than half of the class never got a textbook of any sort. It’s going to be even better this year with

    There was no obvious effect on performance.

  12. Scott Says:

    Hear, Hear!

    The first year of a new edition, I always make a point of supporting the older edition. It’s just a matter of not deleting the old references from my notes/slides. As stated, the changes are usually so minor that it has almost no effect on what’s taught.

    Honestly, I think the only thing I really need to drop textbooks entirely is a good set of practice problems for each topic. I’m slowly building up enough year-by-year, but it will take a while.

  13. Duvane Says:

    What’s to stop you from requiring the 3rd edition _instead_ of the current edition? It sounds like you already have the errors in the 3rd edition available for your students, so if you don’t feel like there is a substantive improvement in the new edition, why require it? Is there a problem with there being enough supply of the old edition?

    On the other hand, if you’ve gone to the effort of comparing the two editions, couldn’t you come up with a “translation” between the two and allow both? Even if the publisher has been as sneaky/dishonest as to swap sections around without making substantive changes, couldn’t that just be documented? I realize that’s not a trivial task, but it would be a lot easier than writing your own text. And, of course, if such a document were available on the web, it might be useful to other students using this text (hint, hint).

    Another thing I will mention is that the library at my university has for the last few years made all required textbooks available on reserve every semester. Obviously, that’s no substitute for owning the text for students in an OChem course, but it can help students using a previous edition.

  14. DrH Says:

    It’s criminal what they charge for texts these days. I haven’t required a textbook in my Organic class for the last two years. I recommend, but don’t require, that they buy a book with solutions guide, whatever they can find cheaply. The first year I built a fairly extensive problem set from old exams. It was a pain, but now I can just add or make corrections – I don’t ever have to search a new edition to see if the problems I want to assign are changed (often not, or the problem number is off by 1). Performance has been better, possibly because the problems more closely resemble what I want them to know for the test. I post my slides and relevant pages in the following websites, but I don’t think they bother much with the online texts.



    I think the best online content for organic is at U Calgary. Pages have no password and come up in search engines, but the front page says linking to it violates copyright, so I guess I won’t. It has nice Jmol animations.

  15. orgo Says:

    The Soph Organic I level text books are $300+ and yet Carey and Sundberg A or B are $40 a pop.

    Even Kurti and Czako Named reactions book is $80.

    There prices are outrageous for undergrad level books.

  16. mevans Says:

    You’re right that the preparation of your own text in a single semester is too much, but I would suggest chipping away at it over time. Over two years—including a blitzkrieg of writing one summer—I was able to produce enough written material for a second-semester organic chemistry course. Now that I’ve jumped ship to general chemistry I’ve had to restart, but I’m seeing progress.

    What kills me is that such efforts should be collaborative, involving entire division’s worth of faculty. Materials should get passed from one faculty member to another over the years, and sculpted ever closer to perfection over time. My sense is that departments turn over too quickly at the chair level to make such efforts sustainable in the long term.

    One thing worth remembering also is that there are quite a few faculty who are personally invested in the publishing industry—not just authors, but those who help with chapter reviews, digital content development, and the like.

  17. Old Biddy Says:

    $400 for a course pack is just absurd. Books were a big dent in my budget when I was an undergrad 25 years ago, yet an average introdcutory textbook was $50, and I made $5/hour doing workstudy. So assume 10 hours work per textbook. We were on the quarter system but fortunately some books got used for multiple quarters. I spent about $400-500 per year.
    Assuming the students get $10/hour working nowadays, that’s 38 hours right there..

  18. Wenthold Says:

    Honestly, I think the only thing I really need to drop textbooks entirely is a good set of practice problems for each topic. I’m slowly building up enough year-by-year, but it will take a while.

    This is a good reason to switch to an on-line problem system, like Sapling. That’s what Mark Lipton does here at Purdue.

    Or, as you say, build your own. That takes a little effort, but as you say, keep working on it and before long, you have it done. And then you don’t need to do it again. That’s what I have done.

    I should also add, another problem with your own problems is a lack of a solutions manual. Therefore, I have had to create my own for my own problems (although I do solution videos (screen recordings); they have the answers but they also show the process and what I am thinking)

  19. Professor Dave Says:

    Here in the UK, books are an added extra which the student can use to stretch themselves or reinforce their knowledge. No one works through a ‘course text’ – that is seen as being rather ‘high school’. Instead the lecturer defines the syllabus based on what is said and written in lectures. The lecturer provides additional problems for students to solve (for free). Furthermore, here in the UK, it is standard practice to provide all students with one or two key books for free, as part of the study package which their tuition fees are paying for – to get them into the habit of independently reading around. It always surprises me how relatively inflexible US higher education is – teaching the same things in the same order using (largely) identikit books to structure the teaching. As a professor here in the UK, I decide what I want the students to learn, and how I would like to teach it.

  20. Phillip Says:

    At Cambridge in the UK, The course material and problem sets are independent of any textbook. The core examinable material is presented in a lecture handout (with gaps for students to annotate during lectures), and a problem set to be completed as homework and discussed in tutorial classes (which is where I get involved).

    This takes a reasonable effort to set up, but once done can be substantively left alone for several years (especially for introductory courses), with minor tweaks/updates as necessary.

    There are several textbooks recommended to accompany the courses, but none is required. This allows the students to pick a book that presents the information in a way that suits their learning style (without specifying an edition), or use the library to refer to a range of different books (as well as other information sources such as the growing online resources) to find a suitable explanation for any problem they encounter. It also encourages the best students to refer to multiple sources of information and develop an understanding of the complexities of the material, rather than parroting a single textbook.

    Given the complexity of chemistry at college level, and the nuances and layers of theory that can be applied to different aspects of the material, this seems to me to be more appropriate than asking students to buy specific books.

    Of course, this does transfer some cost to the college – you need to print the lecture handouts (about 400 copies for first year undergrad chemistry in Cambridge). If this is too great a cost for the college to bear, then one solution would be to require students to print their own – while this would incur a cost, it’s certainly cheaper than buying a textbook. And with advances in digital technology, it could even be distributed as a pdf and annotated on a tablet PC.

  21. Wenthold Says:

    Given the complexity of chemistry at college level, and the nuances and layers of theory that can be applied to different aspects of the material, this seems to me to be more appropriate than asking students to buy specific books.

    And this also helps in the event that the instructor has views that do not agree with the textbooks. For example, I teach very emphatically that “charge separation” in Lewis structures is NOT a big deal at all (it is for gas-phase structures, but organic reactions occur in solution, which can ameliorate the problem). So with my own materials, I can emphasize this part, whereas most textbooks (even organic texts) parrot the gen chem approach of abhoring charge separation (even to the extent of expanded octet – ACK! Don’t need it, don’t want it!)

  22. Paul Bracher Says:

    Several interesting related articles and discussion threads from yesterday and today:

    NBC News: College Textbook Prices Have Risen 1,041 Percent Since 1977

    Reddit r/books and r/dataisbeautiful discussion on above

    Inside Higher Ed: Triaging Textbook Costs (h/t @ChemProfCramer)

  23. Paul Bracher Says:

    And to respond to a few points made above:

    On not using a textbook: I tell my class that the information they need to know is in the slides. If it’s not in the slides (or directly related to the slides), then it won’t be on an exam. Still, the slides don’t provide a full explanation of every concept or enough related practice problems. That’s why I believe a textbook is important.

    On assigning an old edition: When I came here, we were just starting with the 4th edition, so I’ve stuck with it. If/when the 5th edition comes out, I will strongly consider keeping the 4th. However, a potential problem is that our bookstore will need to be able to find enough new and used copies of the old edition for all of the people in my class. I am not sure how easy that will be for them (or how happy they’ll be to do it). It’ll be interesting to see how students respond, as well.

    On free, open-source texts: I am all for them! Show me a good one, and I’ll adopt it. Right now, all of the free organic texts I’ve encountered do not come close to substituting for our current text. You need suitable prose (not simply a Wikipedia article), instructive figures, and a solid set of practice problems. Of course, the great thing is that these texts are only going to keep getting better.

  24. Professor Steve Says:

    Paul, I agree with you completely. At my last university, I fought tooth and nail to keep from adopting the newest edition of a text that was virtually identical to the previous two editions, which were four and nine years old, respectively, when the new edition came out. Other than a few new end-of-chapter problems, the new edition placed one chapter earlier, and it included Dess-Martin periodinane instead of PCC to make aldehydes from alcohols. The bookstore, and, of course, the publisher, kept pressing us to adopt the new edition, the former saying, “I just can’t find enough copies of the old edition.” (paraphrased) One year, the bookstore captain sold back every unused and returned copy of the old edition before asking us if we were switching to the new edition. We had him buy them back at a loss.

    Businesswise, it makes sense (and cents) for publishers to push their new edition at a higher cost while rounding up and ceasing to print the older editions. As a professor, I really appreciate receiving free textbooks, because reading different perspectives and historical anecdotes helps me teach more effectively. On the other hand, I certainly wouldn’t fork out my own money to buy them.

    Other than an occasional update revealing how organic chemical reactions work in biological systems, the basic chemistry hasn’t changed in decades, as you said. Going rogue, especially pre-tenure, to adopt your own text or a different text than your colleagues is politically risky. Whatever text my department uses, my lectures are based on my interpretation of the science while incorporating other books’ perspectives. The book is just used for referencing practice problems to help students learn the basics, for more in-depth background information, and for pre-lecture appetite whetting and post-lecture review.

    In the grand scheme of things, as I’ve learned, one must pick his/her battles. You control lecture content, how you teach it, and how you assess learning. As far as book choice goes, if your department doesn’t allow faculty to choose their own text for their section, I’ve learned that it’s best to just be a good colleague and go along with the most senior and/or opinionated person regardless of the financial impact on students. Besides, no matter how much the book costs, I’ve never really heard about it on end-of-course evaluations. It is those evaluations on which tenure decisions are based.

  25. mevans Says:

    The figures are a tough issue. That’s one place where the traditional textbook publishers can excel, especially in the non-organic divisions. It’s really hard for a faculty member, group of faculty, or even a whole university to marshal the resources to produce great figures. Reminds me of the insane levels of effort many schools have put into MOOCs, with often only lukewarm results.

  26. Joe Q. Says:

    I don’t completely understand why it’s up to the bookstore to procure second-hand copies of old textbooks. Isn’t there a vibrant person-to-person market in textbooks? (a la Craigslist, Kijiji, etc.) Or abebooks.com as an option? If you’re not ready to go to a full textbook-free model, why not just specify readings from the nth, (n-1)th and (n-2)th edition of the text?

  27. Paul Bracher Says:

    @Joe Q.: The bookstore is supposed to meet our students’ needs in terms of supplying course materials. It’s an interesting relationship that I’m still trying to figure out. On their side, they are supposed to stock any materials professors have listed as required for a course. On our side, professors are not allowed to sell items themselves or direct students to alternate vendors. For instance, I cannot tell students their textbook is available at [redacted online vendor] and cannot sell students goggles (required for orgo lab) that I’ve bought in bulk. I was going to make millions. Millions!

    Using an out-of-print edition can make the lives of the managers at the bookstore quite unpleasant, because they have to find 100 or 200+ copies of the book. At some point, they won’t be able to buy enough brand-new copies of old editions, and students will start to complain about having to buy “yucky” used versions.

    Does all of this seem like nonsense? Yes, because it is. I cannot tell you how much nonsense there is in this line of work. And it is often impossible to navigate around nonsense when $$$ are involved.

  28. Jessie Key Says:

    As some of the others have commented, there are alternatives to costly textbooks. Open textbooks and the Chemwiki have content, but it may not be as “polished, packaged and convenient” as the commercial textbooks. I think with gradual improvement we can get there.

    Check out the some open textbook resources available, including the open textbook adaptation I worked on: http://open.bccampus.ca/find-open-textbooks/?subject=Chemistry

    Openstax has also just put out a Gen Chem textbook: https://openstaxcollege.org/textbooks/chemistry

  29. NC Says:

    Heard of four guys called Clayden, Greeves, Warren, and Wothers? Or are even they expensive in the States?

    Other than that, what Phillip and Professor Dave say.

  30. Professor Steve Says:

    @NC Says: Clayden, Greeves, Warren, and Wothers is a top choice for a sophomore-level organic text (also Klein, Jones/Fleming, and Loudon); however, it might present a challenge depending upon the caliber of your typical student.

  31. James Says:

    The interesting part of the price equation is that the value that big textbook publishers bring to the table is less than ever before. The publishers used to be indispensable for the dark arts of layout and design, but with tools like Adobe Indesign, self-publishing platforms like Createspace (among others) and ready access to swarms of talented-and-affordable designers via Elance the production element is now accessible for someone with sufficient motivation. The only thing missing to hit a mass market is sales & marketing muscle, which is an increasingly solvable problem.

    What IS indispensable is the sweat equity required to produce a textbook, along with the figures and proofreading required to make it usable. Sadly, the amount of money an author makes on the sales of one textbook from one of the big firms is a pittance compared to their overall contribution to the work (less than 10% of price).

    Given this imbalance, the current textbook model is ripe for disruption.

    Making a mass-market textbook independent of the big publishers that allows students to save on price while giving a reasonable reward to those who take the time to build it has never been more within reach.

    Who’s going to do it?

  32. James Says:

    Second point. The email content is weird. You’d think that they’d want to give an example of someone who WASN’T required to use the text, but did anyway, and lo, she jumped leaps and bounds over the poor lazy sods who didn’t use it. I guess those types of testimonials are harder to manufacture.

  33. ISNA-phile Says:

    Graham Bodwell spoke at the International Symposium on Novel Aromatic Compounds a few weeks ago.

    His laptop was stolen. He did not have a backup file saved.

    He delivered his lecture with a molecular model and a narrative, and he TORE IT UP.

    You do not need fancy figures to teach organic chemistry.

  34. Stubbs Says:

    One instructor’s “fancy figure” is another instructor’s carefully prepared learning tool. Graham Bodwell was likely talking to experts in his field. This does not undermine his achievement in presenting a lecture without images, but it does make your broad assertion seem naive and dismissive.

  35. Joe Q. Says:

    @Paul Bracher: It seems to me that the bookstore is at the centre of the issue then, if you are required to rely on them to procure everything. As an undergraduate I bought far more textbooks person-to-person than I did from the store (and this was before we had CL). I’d imagine with Facebook groups etc. it’d be even easier.

  36. eugene Says:

    Any suggestions for an experimental organic book, which is not microscale, where they show you how to do everything and teach you pretty good experimental technique (or at least the best that you can get from reading)?

  37. Former Student Says:

    Dr. B,
    From what I remember when I took Orgo 1 from you last year, the online access code, which was significantly less expensive than the physical textbook, allowed you to view an online version of the text as well as have access to the problem sets. Instead of recommending that students buy the $375 coursepack, you could recommend that students buy only the access code and the physical model set. Because the physical text was so heavy anyway, I usually would leave it at home and just access the book online while I was on campus.

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