Digital access makes textbooks open to all

Student Brianne Cheng was part of the process of turning slides into images in a textbook. Photo by Brianne Cheng.

Dr. Marion Jackson scrolls through digital images of blood, fluids, and fine needle aspirates obtained from clinical cases seen at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Veterinary Medical Centre and from private practices. The samples have been submitted to Prairie Diagnostic Services Inc., a rich source of teaching materials. The veterinary clinical pathologist is deciding which images meet the standard to be included in the second edition of Veterinary Clinical Pathology – An Introduction.

Careful consideration in choosing good quality images is typical for any textbook, but this time, Jackson is taking an unusual path: she has obtained partial funding to make her textbook completely digital and open access through a grant from the Open Textbook Creation/Adaptation Fund administered through the Gwenna Moss Centre for Teaching and Learning Excellence.

The first edition of her book, published by Blackwell in 2007, is a traditional hard copy textbook, but it was time for revision and expansion. Jackson recruited two co-authors, Dr. Beverly Kidney, WCVM, and Dr. Nicole Fernandez, University of Calgary Faculty of Veterinary Medicine (UCVM), to help with the second edition, which is available only as an open access textbook.

There are a variety of ways to define “open access,” but to many people, it means a free, and potentially editable digital textbook. The open access format means Jackson’s textbook will be freely available to not only WCVM and UCVM veterinary students, but to students, technicians, practitioners, universities, and any other interested individuals with internet access, around the world.

Jackson acknowledges the obvious bright side to open access.

“The big benefit for students is that instead of paying $90 to $130 for a textbook (or more in many cases) — most of which goes to the publisher — now they can go online and have ready access,” says Jackson, a professor in the WCVM’s Department of Veterinary Pathology.

“Textbooks are expensive and add significantly to the costs of education. This can be a hardship for the many students who are already working within very tight budgets.”

Additionally, making the textbook completely digital — a key component in open access — provides major benefits to Jackson as an author.

“The ability to update and make corrections on a regular basis is very attractive because when you have a hardcopy textbook, you may notice an error or omission from day one which is perpetuated until the next edition.”

Jackson adds that the length of the textbook and any associated appendices as well as the costs of publishing figures and images, are prohibitive factors with traditional textbooks. Her first edition contained only black and white figures, tables, and urine sediment preparations; colour images of blood and cytology slides were restricted to relatively few and they were placed together, rather than within the chapter to which they belonged. These decisions were made by the publisher and were based on the cost of production rather than for the benefit of the reader.

“With digital, you and your coauthors make your own decisions, and we planned on using as many coloured images and figures as needed to create a valuable learning tool and resource. We were also able to include links to several practical videos, a laboratory manual, a protocol manual on sample submission, and dozens of images of blood and cytology smears,” she says.

For Jackson, these features and the ability to provide the e-book free of charge, outweigh any potential for compensation.

There are different licenses that can be applied to works such as this. These Creative Commons (CC) licenses range from allowing the user to alter and build on the original work, as long as the original work is credited, through to the most restrictive license which allows the user to download and share the work without altering or using it commercially. It is this most restrictive license that Jackson and her coauthors chose, given the scientific nature of the work which is generally not open to alternate interpretations. The CC-BY license grants complete freedom to use and alter the work. In Jackson’s case, the CC-BY-ND license (ND meaning “no derivatives”) prevents others from altering her direct work while allowing them free access.

Based on her experience so far, Jackson is excited about the future of open access.

“I think it is great that open access is being promoted on campus and that a source of funding is available as there are certainly costs involved in creating these works,” says Jackson.

“I think as the word gets out and more people learn about this, we will see more open access textbooks appearing in the future.”

Written by Brianne Chenge. Brianne Cheng of Edmonton, Alta., is a third-year veterinary student who was part of the Western College of Veterinary Medicine’s Undergraduate Summer Research and Leadership program in 2016. Brianne was part of Dr. Jackson’s team and helped bring this project to fruition so that WCVM and UCVM students could test drive this textbook in the 2016-2017 academic year. Brianne’s story is part of a series of stories written by WCVM summer research students. 

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