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Press Release: Doctoral Student’s Report Spurs Legislation, Targets High Cost of College Textbooks, Touts e-Textbooks to Reduce Prices

A white paper by Graduate Center doctoral student Kimberly Libman, targeting the high cost of college textbooks, is the basis of a legislative package just introduced in the New York State Assembly. The paper, Transforming Textbooks, shows how electronic textbooks can reduce costs and expand academic resources for cash-strapped public college students, who spend more than $1,000 annually on required texts, and for public universities, which are facing budget cuts. But, the report also warns, the publishing industry’s current business practices stand in the way.

Libman, a Ph.D. candidate in Environmental Psychology, is the Graduate Center’s first Urban Policy Fellow in a recently created program headed by Dr. Stephen Brier, Professor of Urban Education and Special Assistant for Legislative Affairs to President William Kelly.

Based on Libman’s research, NYS Assemblymember Micah Z. Kellner, who represents Assembly District 65 on the East Side of Manhattan, has introduced legislation to establish “a pilot program for bulk purchase electronic textbook delivery.” The three-bill package is designed “to enable students to access electronic textbooks and course materials through the university library systems” of CUNY and SUNY. It also “provides criteria for colleges and universities to be eligible for the program” and requires the chancellors of both CUNY and SUNY “to evaluate the results of the program” in its impact among students, faculty, and library staff.

The CUNY/SUNY bulk e-textbook purchasing plan would have the university systems buy electronic titles only in flexible formats. “Format flexibility is key,” Kellner says. “By writing into the law that the digital format must be as readily usable for a student using a desktop or laptop, e-book reader or Kindle, as it is for the student who buys that latest gadget, iPad or otherwise, we ensure that students are not priced out of being able to participate based on what kind of device they happen to own, are able to afford, or have access to.”

University libraries now experience difficulties trying to exercise traditional fair use of their electronic titles. Publishers put poison pills into licensing agreements that don’t allow e-books to be used like printed ones. For instance, e-books can expire and be deleted from the university library’s server or aren’t allowed to be transferred from one college to another through existing inter-library loan systems.  Under the legislation, the universities would not be allowed to enter these types of toxic licensing agreements, thus forcing publishers to negotiate.

“It’s clear that the publishing industry sees e-textbooks as competition for dead-tree textbooks,” Kellner says. “They are fixing the game: pricing digital titles higher than they need to be with licenses that make it impossible to fully realize their potential.” He says the legislation, if passed, “leverages our biggest asset in fighting the publishing goliath -- our strength in numbers. If CUNY and SUNY negotiate the bulk purchase of digital textbooks on behalf of all 625,000 public university students, they should be able to get a pretty good deal on those licenses. My legislation requires them to do just that.”

E-book pricing by publishers came under fire in a recent dispute between Amazon and Macmillan, a publishing giant, when Amazon pulled all Macmillan titles from its site after Macmillan refused to accept Amazon’s lower pricing for its e-book titles. Amazon eventually capitulated to Macmillan’s higher pricing demands.The Graduate Center is devoted primarily to doctoral studies and awards most of the City University of New York’s Ph.D.s. An internationally recognized center for advanced studies and a national model for public doctoral education, the school offers more than thirty doctoral programs, as well as a number of master’s programs. Many of its faculty members are among the world’s leading scholars in their respective fields, and its alumni hold major positions in industry and government, as well as in academia. The Graduate Center is also home to more than thirty interdisciplinary research centers and institutes focused on areas of compelling social, civic, cultural, and scientific concerns. Located in a landmark Fifth Avenue building, the Graduate Center has become a vital part of New York City’s intellectual and cultural life with its extensive array of public lectures, exhibitions, concerts, and theatrical events. Further information on the Graduate Center and its programs can be found at www.gc.cuny.edu.

Submitted on: MAR 1, 2010

Category: Press Room, Psychology