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A US-based initiative plans to make new textbooks available for free on the Internet for university students in developing nations.

If the Global Text Project's first book — due in January 2007 — is a success, the project aims to produce 999 more titles covering biology, physics, mathematics and chemistry.

Funding will be sought from the world's 1,000 largest and richest companies, each of which will be asked to sponsor an individual title.

The plan is to increase students' access to educational material by overcoming the expense of traditional textbooks, which quickly become outdated.

Leading professors worldwide will be invited to contribute chapters that will then be compiled into up-to-date texts using the software behind Wikipedia, the popular free-access online encyclopaedia.

An international advisory board drawn from universities in Colombia, Egypt, Malaysia, South Africa, Uganda and the United Kingdom has been set up to oversee the books' creation.

With Wikipedia, entries can be updated and modified by anyone who registers with the site. The Global Text Project will use a modified version of the software behind the website, so that only its editors will be able to accept any suggested changes to the texts. 

The books will be written in English and then translated by volunteers into Arabic, Chinese and Spanish.

Students will be able to read the books online or print them as pdf files, and will be encouraged to contribute to future editions.

"These books should never be out of date because they will be subject to continuous improvement," says the project's website. "Each class using one of the books will be asked to add value to the book. They should leave a better book for the next class."

Rick Watson, a professor at the University of Georgia's Terry College of Business in the United States, is leading the initiative.

He points out that traditional textbooks are simply too expensive for the majority of students in developing nations, even when publishers offer a 50 per cent discount.

Faiq Billal, director of science at the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, welcome the plans.

"In most developing countries, curricula are not up-to-date and in some countries very obsolete books are still used," he told SciDev.Net.

Billal points out however that other obstacles — such as a lack of infrastructure and trained teachers — stand between such countries and the wealth of the world's information. "We should not forget that access to Internet is also limited in developing countries."