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Open textbooks - finding and using

This guide provides resources for finding open textbooks as well as information on how to adapt them to coursework.


  • Won't I be infringing on copyright if I use these materials?
  • What is the quality of these materials? 
    • As with any publication, quality will vary. However many open textbooks are developed through rigorous peer review and production processes that mirror traditional materials. It is important to note that being open or closed does not inherently affect the quality of a resource. 
  • Do open textbooks require special technology to use? 
    • No. One of the great things about open textbooks is that users have the right to turn it into any format they wish (which is almost always forbidden with traditional resources). Therefore, open textbooks aren’t tied to a particular type of device or software, which gives students and schools more freedom in what technology they purchase. In cases where technology isn’t available, there is always the option to print.
  • Does using open textbooks affect student learning? 
  • How do you tell if an educational resource is an open textbook? 
    • The key distinguishing characteristic of an open textbook is its intellectual property license and the freedoms the license grants to others to share and adapt it. If a book is not clearly tagged or marked as being in the public domain or having an open license, it is not open. It’s that simple. The most common way to release materials as open textbooks is through Creative Commons copyright licenses, which are standardized, free-to-use open licenses that have already been used on more than 1 billion copyrighted works. 
  • What is the difference between ‘free’ and ‘open’ resources?
    •  Free resources may be temporarily free or may be restricted from use at some time in the future (including by the addition of fees to access those resources). Moreover, free-but-not-open resources may not be modified, adapted or redistributed without obtaining special permission from the copyright holder. 
  • What are the advantages/disadvantages of the various course material options? 
    • The table below may be helpful to understand the advantages of different course materials:
Table comparing advantages and disadvantages of commercial textbooks, open textbooks/OERs, and library-purchased materials
Type Advantages Disadvantages
Commercial Textbooks
  • “All in one” package for professors
  • Contains “value added” materials such as answer keys, online quizzes etc.
  • Cost
  • Electronic copies may not be shared/redistributed/resold
  • Updated only with new editions
  • Access codes:
  • May require special code to access supplemental materials.
  •  Students may not be able to use /resell earlier editions if they require a special access code.
Open textbooks/ OERs
  • Free
  • May be linked to in course syllabi.
  • No restrictions on reuse, distribution, and adaptation
  • Customizable
  • Updated immediately
  • OERs may not exist on niche topics
  • Additional effort required to remix, adapt, and combine materials
  • Typically do not contain supplemental materials (e.g., practice quizzes, answers etc.)
Library-purchased materials
  • Free to McGill students (paid for by Library)
  • May be linked to in course syllabi.
  • Range of materials on all topics
  • Varying ability to download, print, and share.
  • Additional effort required to remix, adapt, combine materials
  • Typically do not contain supplemental materials (e.g., practice quizzes, answers etc.)
  • Not typically “textbooks” but rather books, articles, chapters etc.

FAQs adapted in part from SPARC's (PDF, 33 KB) FAQ: Open Educational Resources (Creative Commons Attribution (CCBY) 4.0 International License)

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