Freedom of the Press Meets the Department of Education
A colleague recently returned from a term away from Stanford, and we briefly discussed the Department of Education's (successful) attempts to regulate the length of class sessions. (See my previous post.)
"That's nothing," he replied, and related how Congress had passed a law regulating the publication of 'subsequent editions' of textbooks.
By way of background, textbook authors and publishers love to create second, third, ... nth editions of successful textbooks. This practice compels libraries to buy the latest editions, and it can help defeat the resale-of-textbooks markets. The recent rise of "textbooks for rent" services increases the urge to "re-edition," as well. Since textbooks are often priced .. liberally (I would use the word 'outrageously,' but my publishers would object), the cost of new textbooks can add significantly to the overall cost of a college education. (I've written some textbooks, but my conscience is clear on this score; no 2nd editions for me. Not that any of my publishers have been beating down my door, demanding a second edition.)
(Parenthetically, I'll bet colleges figure their costs --- which drive what students are allowed to borrow --- based on the purchase price of textbooks. Given resale and textbooks-for-rent, that is surely padding.)
The applicable law is 20 USC, Chapter 28, Section 1015b. My colleague forwarded to me the "directive" he received from his publisher to comply with the law. It reads:
1. The Preface of every print textbook will contain a section headed “New to This Edition.” This section should be featured on the first page of the Preface.
2. “New to This Edition” copy must appear in both instructor and student versions of the book.
3. The section should contain an introductory statement summarizing the basic intent behind the revisions, followed by bullet points.
4. Each bullet point should focus on a “substantial” content revision.
5. The list of substantial revisions should have a minimum of six bullet points, in order to show that the revision is well justified.
• Any change that impacts more than 20% of the content or feature category. Examples: “Over 20% of the research cited is from 2008 or later” or “Over 50% of the sample student essays are new to this edition.”
• Any addition, subtraction, or change in placement of chapters. Examples: a list of new chapters and reasons for the new coverage; a list of chapters moved for the purpose of better learning or based on user feedback.
• Changes in approach, tone, format, that author incorporates throughout the book – usually these are in reaction to user feedback or new trends in how the subject matter is approached by the discipline.
• Changes that impact exercises; test/quiz items; assignments; or anything that impacts what students will be studying and materials that instructors will have to update in their notes, syllabus, etc.
20 USC, Chapter 28, Section 1015b is neither this precise nor explicit. Someone, somewhere, turned the law into this "directive." It could be the publisher (the law talks about responsibilities of publishers), or perhaps --- and what I think is more likely --- the Department of Education helped us all by issuing regulations on how to comply with the new law.
To be clear, I fully appreciate that churning editions to maintain library sales and defeat the resale and rental markets is probably less than socially desirable behavior on the part of publishers/authors. Why "probably?" The economics of this, given resale markets and textbook-for-rent services, are messy; what is the socially optimal amount of "control" a publisher/author should have over their intellectual property? So I'm not ready to condemn such practices out of hand.
But I'm also less than thrilled with Congress/the Executive Branch using their power over institutions of higher education (presumably, the legal force here is the usual story of "you want to take Uncle Sam's dime, you must dance to Uncle Sam's tune") to muck around with something so close to the First Amendment and freedom of the press. Aren't there better and less intrusive ways to accomplish the aims of this legislation? Or am I being too sensitive?