Published online 15 September 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060911-13

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Textbook free for all

A new wiki-project has been started at the University of Georgia, which aims to pool knowledge in free online texts. News@nature.com finds out how it will work.

So, what's this Global Text Project about?

Who needs paper? Online texts could be cheaper.Who needs paper? Online texts could be cheaper.Punchstock

It's an effort to pool the knowledge of university professors and students around the globe and produce 1,000 university textbooks using wiki technology. The books will span undergraduate subjects from biology to literature to computer science.

There are millions of university teachers around the world and tens of millions of students, whose knowledge could be put to greater use, says project instigator Rick Watson at the University of Georgia in Athens. Countless essays and assignments are currently consigned to the waste bin. "It's an untapped intellectual resource."

How can millions of people write a coherent book?

Well, it's not an entire free-for-all. Anyone will be able to contribute to the new textbooks, true — but unlike wikipedia, the online, user-made encyclopedia, only an editor will be able to approve contributions. Otherwise the texts risk being wrong, long and hard to follow, with students being able to fall back on the old "but it's in the text, sir" excuse for wrong answers in their essays.

Do we really need more textbooks?

The particular goal of this project is to create free books for those students in developing countries who cannot afford traditional textbooks, which can cost $100 or more. Most current textbooks cannot be freely scanned on to the web because they are protected by copyright. And in fast-moving fields such as computer science, a printed textbook quickly falls out of date.

Of course, any student can already glean a wealth of information on any topic from the web. But as every student knows, you can drown in information without a good text as a guide.

How did it start?

When Watson was asked to teach a course on a type of computer language called XML. He found no decent textbooks — and so asked his 2004 class to create one as part of their studies. Others encouraged him to expand the idea and now, he says, "It's my weekend and evening job".

More than 100 people in 20 countries are now involved, including Uganda, Ethiopia, India, Columbia and Indonesia. Some teachers in developing countries have already suggested a particular need for textbooks in agriculture, public health and wireless technology.

Has he got very far?

The project is still embryonic. The first book will be on information systems (the use of computers to help business) because this is Watson's field, and should be drafted this year. In the process, Watson hopes to figure out the project details, such as what kind of changes will need to be made to the wiki software to customize it for this use. Eventually, Watson also plans to translate the books into different languages, including Chinese and Arabic.

Isn't anyone else already doing this?

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There are many other efforts to try and bring computers and information to developing countries at low cost — including some by the brains behind wikipedia. Wikibooks is a collection of openly accessible books that started in July 2003, and a testing phase was launched for Wikiversity, an effort to create free learning materials and activities, in August 2006. But Watson's project differs from these in having an expert editor in charge of each text.

And it's really entirely free?

At the moment, everyone is contributing for free. Ultimately, Watson hopes to gain corporate sponsorship for the books; one idea is to approach the world's biggest companies for endorsement. But to succeed, Watson says that the project needs lots of people and enthusiasm on a grassroots level — the same fervour that has fuelled the growth of wikipedia.

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