The trouble with e-books and what you can do

As a Library, we work hard to ensure all students can access their essential readings via online reading lists. We know that making these resources available online has a positive impact on the student experience in various ways, including benefitting students based off-campus, and meeting different accessibility needs. E-books represent a significant portion of our online resources, yet there are often difficulties in providing access to them.

Why? The short answer is: many publishers charge libraries a lot more for e-books than the individual customer, and place a number of restrictions on e-book use that make it difficult to justify the cost.

E-book SOS

The trouble with e-books

Academic librarians, researchers, and university lecturers in the UK started working together to identify problems with the academic publishing industry over e-book pricing and launched a campaign to raise awareness called #ebookSOS. Here are some of the biggest roadblocks libraries face in providing access to e-books:

  • Libraries can’t buy Kindle books. We have to buy e-books that are licensed to universities. Some are only available to individuals as an e-book, and not to libraries.
  • Some e-books are priced outside of budgetary constraints. For example, one specific e-book cost £31.49 for the Kindle version, and £650 for a 3-user licence e-book for Universities (i.e., an e-book that can only be used by 3 people at any one time). Another example is a print book that cost £51.99, while the same text as a 3-user licence e-book cost £1,050. This sort of situation is unfortunately not rare.
  • Some licence terms mean that the e-books are not owned by the library, or make it very difficult for students to access the e-books. Often there is no choice in the terms. They include:
    • Credit model e-books: payment is for a certain number of ‘credits’, which represent the number of times the e-book is used. When these credits have been used up, more payment is needed (often at a higher price per credit).
    • Subscription model e-books: an annual fee is paid to retain access to the e-book. The cost often increases each year.
    • Single-user licences: these e-books can only be read by one person at a time, removing a key benefit of e-books.
    • Changes in access: publishers sometimes stop selling the e-book version of a particular title, or may change the licence terms. For example, a 3-user licence for an e-book may change to a single-user licence.
  • Some e-books are only sold as part of larger packages. This can mean the Library has to spend more on unwanted resources in order to provide access to the few that are needed.
  • Some books are only sold as part of e-textbook models, where content is licenced for specific, very restricted, cohorts on an annual basis.

This list adapted with thanks from the University of York Library’s Twitter thread.

What can we do?

It’s important that librarians and academics work together to address these problems, and we believe this partnership starts with publishing, and continues through to the curation of reading lists. The Library offers publishing support to ensure e-books written by our Essex researchers are as readily available as possible.

Publish accessible books

Agreements that authors sign when publishing e-books affect the ability of their students to read their work. When negotiating a contract with a publisher, we recommend asking about their e-book policies before signing author agreements to help reduce restrictions on students and researchers accessing the published work. A list of questions to ask publishers can be found on the Library website. You could also publish your book under an open access model, allowing everyone access. The OA Books Toolkit is a great resource to help you with this.

Join the campaign to investigate the academic e-book market

A group of academic librarians, researchers, lecturers and students from across the UK have recently compiled an open letter asking the government to investigate the academic publishing industry over its e-book pricing and licensing practices. You can read and sign the open letter and find out more about the Campaign to Investigate the Academic E-book Market on their website. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter using #ebooksos.

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