I got an e-mail pointing to this post at if:Book that asks “Can there be great textbooks without great authors?” The basic premise is that the movement to create collaborative texts a la Wikibooks will never produce the quality required to truly replace traditionally authored texts.

The open source volunteer format works for encyclopedia entries, which don’t require deep knowledge of a particular subject. But the sustained examination and comprehensive vision required to understand and contextualize a particular subject area is out of reach for most wiki contributors. The communal voice of the open source textbook is also problematic, as it lacks the power of an inspired authoritative narrator.

The post goes on to discuss a portion of the Wikibook Art History that was obviously plagiarized from a very widely circulated art history text.

If the first page of the wikibook-of-the month blatantly rips-off one of the most popular art history books in print and nobody notices, how will Wikibooks be able to police the other 11,000 plus textbooks it intends to sponsor? Finally, what will the consequences be if poorly written, plagairized, open-source textbooks become the runaway hit that Wikibooks predicts?

Oy. It’s getting harder and harder, isn’t it? Which is why we have to work harder and harder to get our brains around these issues and figure out how to counsel and teach or students. And I’m struggling here.

On the one hand, I agree that the voice of one author will usually be more coherent and powerful than the combined voice of hundreds or thousands. On the other hand, the knowledge that hundreds or thousands can contribute to the text will usually be more all encompasing than the knowledge of one. On the one hand, it’s going to really stink if collaborative texts are just amalgamated rip offs of existing texts without attribution. On the other hand, if we’re good at teaching responsible research and attribution, that’s an easy problem to fix. On the one hand, however, it will be tempting to appropriate large chunks of copyrighted material, paraphrased and attributed as it might be. On the other hand, if we take the time to understand and teach Fair Use, and if we do the work necessary to interview and research our own sources (and teach our students that process), we can, I think, create something of value. And while it might not compare in terms of eloquence and cogency, what it represents in terms of an exercise in the collaborative attempt to negotiate truth and meaning may be worth even more.

Look, even the most eloquent texts can be a) wrong, b) irrelevant or c) outdated. None, I would guess, are perfect. Would Wikibooks be less perfect? Probably. But could we live with that, and as a part of our practice, could we teach our students the skills necessary to move those texts closer to perfection? Somehow that makes more sense to me these days.

But there’s no doubt, this is all more work for all of us.