Online Textbooks: ChemWiki Part 1

I remember buying my first O-chem books back when I was attending DVC (Diablo Valley College), a not-so-little community college here in the Bay Area. At first I checked the bookstore and lost my lunch when I saw the price of the new books. The text was $215, the lab manual was another $70, and the solutions manual was $100. Unfortunately, a new edition had been released that year, so even though the professor said that we could use older editions, many of the problem sets wouldn’t match up, so we’d have to get the problems from our classmates. In the end, the cheapest and most convenient route was to go online and buy the international editions. Even after extending the method to all my other classes, I still paid almost $500 for books that semester. Now I attended DVC before California went belly-up, so my classes were still a great bargain at $18 a unit. Since I usually took ~19 units, my total tuition cost was around $350 a semester. The cost of the books were actually greater than my cost of tuition. The sad thing is, this wasn’t an unusual case. Luckily this wasn’t too much of a hardship for me; I had a job on campus and money saved up. However, I knew a lot of students for whom the beginning of the semester meant not eating lunch in order to save up gas money.

Now students have probably been complaining about textbooks since time immemorial. Aristotle probably complained that his scribe made spelling mistakes in his copy of The Republic. Most of the time our bellyaching is justified. Not only do textbooks cost a lot, but there is often a gross amount of errors in them. Everyone knows that the first time you find a caption or answer wrong, it makes the rest of the book suspect. Also, these errors give the publishers a reason to release a next edition…that never seems to fix even half of the errors. However, they do switch around problem numbers, add a few pages of new content, and possibly even rearrange chapters. So now the professors lesson and homework plan, that goes by chapter numbers, page numbers, and problem numbers, is moot. And the student is effectively forced to buy the new edition (price “adjusted for inflation”) or suffer some inconveniences. Most choose to simply buy the new edition since tracking down the old one can be difficult and you have to be quick. Also, sometimes bookstores won’t buy back the old edition so if you had it, and an edition switch occurred before you finished your course track, you are up the creek.

Some of these issues can be addressed with online textbooks. The idea of supplementing physical texts with online modules has been around and implemented by publishers for many years. However, I’ve yet to see a good entirely online chemistry textbook. The advantages of online texts are of many: accessible anywhere you get 3G or Wi-Fi and have your mobile device, interactive learning capabilities, easy distribution, instant update/revision, and low cost publishing (server fees). Of course this won’t necessarily result the publisher make more money, but at 4 billion (yea, you read that correctly, billion) dollars a year, the industry doesn’t really need much help.

The student, however, does. We need these online textbooks, not just to save our wallet, but also to help prevent being stuck with an expensive and lousy text for a year that does a poor job of explaining the material. That expensive O-Chem book I bought really was terrible and it forced my professor to do a lot of extra work in teaching us not to follow the book’s direction of simply memorizing 500 reactions, but to see the patterns and the underlying physical explanations. In the end, we learned from his powerpoints and I paid $215 for a glorified reference book.

Well, some people are pioneering an effort to create an “Open Access Textbook”. In a perfect example of “chem 2.0”, UC Davis Professor Delmar Larsen is the project director of the ChemWiki, a truly free online textbook written by everyone, for everyone. In an absolutely Herculean effort, the developers and Larsen (Mary Obrien, Ron Rusay, Brent Krueger, Michelle McCombs) are trying to create a free and complete, as in covering all branches, chemistry textbook using a community of students, faculty, and outside experts from around the world. Of course they aren’t there yet, and there is still a long way to go but hey, their text literally gets better everyday.

Now I know you probably have a lot of questions: what about correctness and plagiarism? Could such a thing ever be considered an Authority? What do the publishers say? Does anyone actually use the thing? Well, it just so happened that a couple of weeks ago, I was at Davis for the Borge fellowship visitation and I had a chance to talk with professor Larsen who agreed to answer some of these questions for me. In a couple of days, I’ll post the interview here. For now, I suggest you go and check out and browse not just through the core, but the wikitexts and community as well.


  1. I agree about the cost issues with text books. I see online text books as becoming more common.

    Newspapers are going out of business
    eBooks are going to more popular with all the new digital readers
    seems like text books would be next

  2. I think newspapers will become very profitable after the herd thins some more.

  3. I have always felt text books are too expensive and agree that they should be on line–not just to save trees. Maz says he has not seen a good ebook, so I thought I would mention mine on Physical Chemistry. It is by Laidler Meiser and Me, and you can find it on my website, where it is half the cost of hard copy and is broken up into modules consisting of a few chapters each, like thermo chapters 1 to 6, etc. at lower costs

    These are pdf, but have multimedia integrated. At the website you can get chapter 1 as a free download, so I would be interested in your comments.

    However another point I want to make is this. Hard copy text books have a resale market, so text book companies come out with new editions to stop the resales. That is their main motivation for new editions.

    What about pdf? Ebook cannot be free. There is a huge amount of work that goes into any book, and ebooks are not that simple, and not cheap to produce. If they are not copy protection, then soon any good book will be everywhere. Hence I had a copy protection made which secures pdfs. That is you can only run them on one computer. Also, a notice goes out when an update comes out.

    It is a noble idea to make them free, but to undertake such a large project as described, must have funding from outside that is not profit motivated–government.

    Although text books might be a 4 billion a year industry, believe me the text book companies are scrambling, partly due to the technology challenge. In the beginning (early 2000)they trashed the digital area by slapping a poorly made CD in the back cover of a book. Then they started having to supply all the on line resources, and that cut into their bottom line. Now they are trying to get a good online model. So text book companies have undergone huge re-structuring in the last decade, as they went out of business or were taken over.

    I actually think that with copy protection, profs are the best to write text books and take them all the way to the market. Hire someone to make it look nice, copy protect it and sell it on-line. That is what I am doing.

    I thought this might be of interest in view of some of the interesting comments on this blog.

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