Math professors call for lower textbook prices

    Over 540 mathematics faculty at more than 125 of the nation’s universities have joined forces with the California Student Public Interest Research Group to urge textbook publisher Thomson Learning to reform its production and pricing practices. The joint call for action began after Thomson Learning, in correspondence with CalPIRG student advocates, dismissed concerns and refused to take steps to reduce textbook costs, according to CalPIRG.

    CalPIRG’s Jan. 29 report on the textbook industry, titled “Ripoff 101: How the Current Practices of the Publishing Industry Drive up the Cost of College Textbooks,” found that students pay an average of $900 per year for textbooks, an increase of 24 percent since 1996. The report also found that publishing companies use various methods to inflate the price of books.

    Thomson Learning’s widely used calculus text, “Calculus: Early Transcendentals,” served as an example of how book prices are raised. A comparison of the fourth edition of the text, published in 1999, and the 2003 fifth edition, reveals minor changes that, according to student and faculty advocates, do not justify a new edition.

    “[Thomson Learning] is basically an example of what’s wrong with the whole textbook industry,” Derlin Hsu, a CalPIRG textbook campaign coordinator said. “Also, calculus as a subject hasn’t changed in the last hundred years, so it’s safe to say that calculus books only have a certain justification for getting new editions.”

    In the report, CalPIRG stated that American students pay significantly more for “Calculus: Early Transcendentals” than students in other countries. According to Thomson Learning’s Web site, the book costs $122 for American students, $65 for British students and $97 for Canadian students.

    “There’s a huge price discrepancy,” Hsu said.

    In a Feb. 9 letter to Thomson Learning, CalPIRG requested that the company take four steps to address the issue of textbook prices. These included continuing to publish the current edition of “Calculus: Early Transcendentals” until there is a significant need for a new edition, establishing a fairer pricing system to reduce the price discrepancy between costs to American and students of other countries, ensuring that faculty are informed about all textbook options, and producing an online version of the text to pass cost savings on to students.

    In a response dated March 15, Thomson Learning declined to directly address these requests or to acknowledge that a problem existed.

    “We can only assure you that we do our best to match our business practices with our customers’ needs — a responsibility we take quite seriously,” the letter stated. “We respect PIRG’s right to disagree with those practices, although we question efforts to single us out, disseminate incorrect information about one of our textbooks, or to contact our customers directly.”

    Student advocates reiterated the same requests in an April 6 letter to mathematics faculty members at universities across the nation urging them to sign the letter.

    “I find it outrageous that Thomson Learning has treated students with such contempt by breaking their promise to reduce the prices of textbooks,” UCSD visiting mathematics professor Henry Tuckwell said.

    To date, eight UCSD mathematics professors, including half the professors teaching calculus this quarter, have signed the letter to Thomson Learning.

    “Professors are under constant pressure from publishers to use the latest [edition],” Tuckwell said. “In reality, in mathematics in particular, many of the older texts are as good or superior to more modern ones, making it clear that the only motivation for the string of new expensive texts is financial gain for publishers.”

    In February, Thomson Learning announced a new line of reduced-price textbooks, called the Advantage Series, available in the summer of 2004.

    However, according to CalPIRG, the new line covers a small number of books and does not address other concerns, such as the lack of new content in new editions and the price difference between books for American and students of other countries.

    Hsu hopes that the current Thomson Learning campaign will help to change publishers’ pricing policies.

    “It’s the first step toward the change that we want to make in the whole textbook industry,” Hsu said.

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