Inequitable Access: An Anti-Competitive Scheme by Textbook Publishers

It goes by many names, but no matter how you cut it, the new “Inclusive Access” model for college course materials is a bad deal for students. 

Educators are moving increasingly towards digital textbooks, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. This has left publishers scrambling to keep access limited and revenues high with paywalls, DRM, and expiring access. These options force students to choose between a rotten deal and gambling with their grade by skipping the purchase altogether.

Rather than challenge these artificial scarcity tactics by embracing Open Education, colleges are making a deal with publishers by creating “inclusive access” models—but this positive sounding name isn’t inclusive at all. Under inclusive access, colleges simply charge students for digital textbooks and materials on their tuition bill—and their access often expires when the course is over. This automatic billing only serves to ensnare students. Exploding digital textbooks don’t belong on your tuition bill when open licensing offers more equitable alternatives.

Publishers Keeping Up an Old Grift

The rising cost of college textbooks has been an absurd joke for decades. Publishers convince an instructor to use their book and gain potentially hundreds of obligatory student customers, with a renewed demand every semester. While students’ pesky habits of sharing and reselling textbooks puts some downward pressure on the price of new books, strategic releases of new editions have managed to keep those forces at bay.

Exploding digital textbooks don’t belong on your tuition bill when open licensing offers more equitable alternatives.

However, with the rise in demand for digital course materials, which has accelerated during the pandemic, publishers have sought new ways to enforce an artificial scarcity. Digital goods have virtually no reproduction costs and can be easily remixed for new innovative purposes, but rather than pass those benefits along, publishers instead implement DRM to make using, sharing and keeping these materials difficult or impossible. The other growing strategy is ‘textbook as a service’, where textbooks are replaced with paid access to online education platforms rife with privacy concerns and barriers to accessibility, and similarly have access revoked at the end of the term.

This is a terrible deal, and students know it. However, when robbed of the right to share or buy secondhand textbooks, they are only left with one alternative—gamble with their grade by skipping the purchase entirely. After being burned by a few courses in which assigned texts are never used, or better materials can be found online, this starts to look like a sensible strategy. However, this can also backfire when exams and assignments are tailored to a particular text. Often it’s the most vulnerable of students who are driven to take this gamble, and that perpetuates broader social inequities.

An “Inclusive” and “Equitable” Burden

Facing such a travesty, some schools are contracting directly with publishers and campus bookstores (often operated by major booksellers) to simply charge all students through their tuition bill after a brief opt-out or refund period.

What this means in practice is that the student will either be charged for materials they can’t afford, or go through the opt-out process and still be at a disadvantage

This system of “inclusive” access burdens students with switching costs when they choose to buy materials elsewhere. Not only do they need to navigate an opt-out process, but publishers also charge more though other sellers. If you would prefer to support a local small bookstore instead of a Barnes & Noble on campus, you need to jump through hoops, and ultimately pay more.

While administrators will often point to these programs as a way to prevent the gamble students make when foregoing their textbook purchase, what this means in practice is that the student will either be charged for materials they can’t afford, or go through the opt-out process and still be at a disadvantage. Even worse, if they decide to make a purchase from a competitor after opting out, like when studying for a midterm or final, they ultimately pay a higher price.

Practically, this means students must make a purchasing decision earlier and with higher stakes, possibly earlier than the deadline to commit to the course itself. If this sounds exhausting—that’s the point. The publishers and major bookstores are banking on students feeling overwhelmed and just incurring the material costs.

While “inclusive access” is often a tuition charge per-course, some schools such as UC Davis are exploring what is called an “equitable” access program. In this version, students are charged an equal $200 per quarter to cover all of their digital purchases. In this case students need to opt out almost three weeks before classes even begin. While digital materials don’t expire at the end of the semester in this case, restrictive DRM means they are only accessible through the third party Bookshelf app, a product owned by a subsidiary of the Ingram Content Group (in turn owner of many publishers such as Baker & Taylor, Hachette, and Perseus).

These programs at over 30 institutions are not just brazenly anti-competitive but totally unnecessary. All of the purported benefits of these programs are covered more comprehensively and more equitably by Open Education initiatives.

Open Educational Resources (OER)

Open Education is the simple idea that the power of open licensing should be applied to educational materials. That means students have instant access to all digital materials at no cost, and even better, both they and their instructor are free to use and remix materials under Creative Commons and other open licensing. This opens up the possibility of tailoring these resources to be more relevant and responsive to students of a given school and class.

As an example of truly equitable access, Rice University launched the nonprofit technology initiative OpenStax in 2012, which publishes high-quality and peer-reviewed digital course content for free. This isn’t only benefiting their own students, but students at hundreds of universities and colleges across the world.

This isn’t just a good deal for students whose campuses and instructors adopt Open Education either. Projects like OpenStax have ignited competition in the textbook market, and since 2017, textbook prices have held steady after 50 years of growth that outpaced inflation. Fortunately they are not alone. There are many universities contributing to, curating, and maintaining a huge quantity of education resources which eliminate or drive down the cost of course materials for students.

So what is the hold-up if a library of high quality materials has been available long before the practice of automated textbook billing became widespread? One major barrier is that most instructors have still never heard of OER.

Pushing Back on Exclusionary Access Contracts

Fortunately, a broad coalition of groups defending free culture, coordinated by SPARC, has recently launched InclusiveAccess.org, a site which offers talking points and information to help students and other members of a school community educate decision-makers. If you already have automated textbook billing on campus, SPARC’s contract library will help you sift through the fine print of the deal.

Campus advocacy is an essential first step for defending against unfair or invasive school contracts with publishers and vendors when they pop up. Reaching out to librarians and administrators about how to support Open Education is the best first step. If your efforts convince just one instructor to adopt Open Education Resources—or release their own material under an open license—you can contribute to more equity for students and less time in course prep for instructors.

With enough momentum, you and fellow organizers can make use of EFF’s own organizing toolkits as well as resources from open textbook alliance and OpenStax. If you start meeting regularly on the issue, consider joining our grassroots information sharing network, the Electronic Frontier Alliance, for guidance from the EFF and fellow alliance members on any digital rights issues on campus.

EFF is proud to celebrate Open Access Week.

Source: Inequitable Access: An Anti-Competitive Scheme by Textbook Publishers

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