Open, Textbooks

An idea for sustaining accounting open textbooks

It happens often enough that I think we in the open education community need a special copyright irony icon for those times when you come across research articles about open education locked away behind copyright paywalls.

Ironic sign post for company called Copyright

Copyright? by Stephen Downes CC-BY

Here is another one (U.S. accounting professors’ perspectives on textbook revisions, Journal of Accounting Education) that contains a great suggestion on how the accounting education community can create & sustain open accounting textbooks.

The paper is a research study on publishers textbook revision cycles, and while it contains some interesting information about how publisher textbook revision cycles are too aggressive for most accounting faculty, the real meat of the article is at the end where the authors present a potential sustainable open textbook community publishing model  along the lines of the NOBA project.

The study was done through the lens of textbook cost and how textbook revisions are one of the major contributing factors to high textbook costs for students. Quicker textbook revision cycles benefit publishers as new editions undercut the used market. The quicker new editions of a popular textbook are released, the greater the opportunity publishers have to sell new books. Since publishers make no money off of used textbooks, there is a strong economic incentive for them to have new editions hitting the market every few years.

How often? The researchers looked at the revision cycles of 69 accounting textbooks over the course of 28 years and found that the time between textbook revisions is shrinking from a mean of 4.2 years in 1988, to 2.4 years in 2016.

While there are changes that need to happen to textbooks over time, it appears that faculty who teach the subject think this cycle is too aggressive. The researchers conducted a survey of 998 accounting faculty, and showed that 54.3% of faculty felt that this revision period was “too short” or “far too short”, preferring a 3.15 year revision cycle. As the authors note, “there is a disconnect between publishers’ current practices and faculty perception of the frequency with which new editions are needed.”

But the recommendation at the end of the paper for accounting educators to establish a Free Textbook Initiative is a fantastic one.

The authors would like to suggest another version of open-source textbooks, a Free Textbook Initiative (FTI) whereby a non-profit entity is created (led by a university, a major accounting firm, the AICPA, or the AAA) to oversee the collection and distribution of funds for writing textbook materials. This would be accomplished primarily with summer writing grants which would be awarded on the condition that all materials created would be put into the public domain and distributed electronically to students and teachers free of charge. For instance, five different professors might write chapters on accounting for leases. Teachers could then choose which chapter they prefer and assemble textbooks on a chapter-by-chapter basis with one chapter authored by professor A and perhaps another by professor B. Those professors with high usage rates for their material would be prime candidates for additional future funding. In this way, the FTI and the absence of frequently revised commercial textbooks would materially lower the cost of education for accounting professionals and create a role model for other disciplines.

Initially, the FTI model could be maintained and periodically updated by faculty in lower-level, static courses, such as principles of financial and managerial accounting, as our survey results indicate that professors teaching in these disciplines prefer longer periods between revisions. Many of the concepts covered in accounting principle courses have changed very little over time (e.g., transaction recording, preparing budgets, etc.), and any initial efforts to develop and compile new course material will potentially be useful for many years.

This does strike me as very similar to the model that NOBA uses in psychology, with individual faculty authoring and submitting openly licensed chapters on specific topics of expertise that other faculty could then mix and match to make their own custom textbooks.

Where the models are different is in the funding structure. NOBA is also a non-profit with sustaining funding coming from the Diener Education Fund. The authors in the accounting example propose a different source of funding.

Accounting education is uniquely placed to be at the vanguard of change in the creation and distribution of textbook materials because of the unique funding opportunities that are available from the profession. The AICPA (American Institute of CPA’s), individual accounting firms, and many businesses are capable and interested in funding initiatives that benefit accounting education. This is almost unique in higher education.

While I am not as keen about having commercial enterprises fund the development of educational material (see Canadian Geographic),  I do think that professional organizations like AICPA (or CPA Canada here) who already have an established interest in maintaining training and credentialing for their profession are well positioned to take on the task of financially support the development of open educational resources specific to their profession. Indeed, the AICPA in the U.S. already supports students through a scholarship program that gives $32,000 in scholarships to 4 students each year. While $5000 and $10,000 scholarships makes a definite impact for those 4 students, imagine the thousands of students who would be financially impacted with lower textbook costs if some of that scholarship money was turned into sustaining an open textbook initiative?

Source: Hammond, T., Danko, K., & Braswell, M. (2015). U.S. accounting professors’ perspectives on textbook revisions. Journal of Accounting Education.

CC BY 4.0 An idea for sustaining accounting open textbooks by Clint Lalonde is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.