Libraries and publishers must make e-books accessible for all

The pandemic has cemented the role of the digital in higher education. SCONUL's Libby Homer asks why so many students still struggle to access e-books

Libby Homer is the Director of Student and Library Services at Anglia Ruskin University.

Today we launch an unprecedented call to action for libraries and publishers to ensure we have sustainable models for providing students (and other readers) with access to e-books and e-textbooks.

The call is supported by SCONUL, Jisc, CILIP, the e-Book SOS Campaign, RLUK, NAG and a number of purchasing consortia, and marks the beginning of this collective working together to bring about substantial and meaningful change to the e-book and e-textbook market.

The digital access imperative

The last eighteen months have bought into sharp focus the need for accessibility to digital materials. This has not only been the case in higher education. Many from all sectors libraries closed their doors due to the result of the first lockdown, and as services pivoted online, electronic and digital resources have become fundamental as a core offering.

In academic libraries, we saw some generosity from publishers with them providing content for free but this was for a limited period. Jisc also negotiated a new deal from aggregators of e-textbooks which was in place ready for September 2020. What has not changed however is the availability of sustainable models of purchasing e-books and e-textbooks, and that is why we are compelled to take action.

What we have currently is a market place which denies inclusivity, thwarting students and the general reader from accessing content. This is particularly harmful for students from widening participation backgrounds, who may be unable to complete their studies successfully due to a lack of access. HE isn’t the only sector affected. Take the example of a NHS clinician who cannot access resources on the latest research due to their Trust not being able to afford to purchase the e-books they need, the stronghold which publishers have in this arena is a societal issue.

Libraries are not blameless in this game (mine included). We have traditionally bought electronic resources, and accepted increases on costs year on year. We have accepted (grudgingly), for example, single-user licences, certain e-textbooks not being made available electronically, as we have moved to providing the majority of our collections digitally to meet the needs of our student and staff population.

However, since there is no “new money”, we are beginning to look seriously at alternatives including moving further towards open access. There is more collective will around this area than I have seen in the last 20 years of working in the library sector, we only have to look at the reach of the successful e-book SOS campaign to see that a storm is brewing.

Modest proposals

We are not however seeking to revolt, as yet, but instead recognise that publishers need to meet the demands of their shareholders, whilst academic libraries need to meet the demands of our stakeholders. We ask that libraries are not excluded from purchasing the titles they need and be permitted to buy electronically anything from a publisher’s catalogue.

We want to have the option to buy these individually, as well as in bundles depending on the needs of the purchasing library and we want to ensure that prices for titles previously bought are not subject to inflated pricing because a publisher seeks a new revenue stream.

We are seeking transparency on pricing models, with costs published on publisher websites so an informed purchasing choice can be made. Further, we want publishers to inform authors when they move the e-textbooks they have written to “premium-only” models, so that an author can choose whether this is the best way of making the work available.

A premium “one to one” pricing model should not be the norm for e-books and e-textbooks, rather the exception; libraries have never bought enough copies of one book for every student, and not every student buys a physical copy of the recommended textbook, but this is the outdated model that continues to be offered as standard. We want newer models which offer access in perpetuity to protect access for users and represent what libraries have paid for.

None of this is irrational, none of this is new. It is a call for simplicity, a call for transparency, a call for fairness, a call for accessibility. As it stands, the marketplace is skewed against not just libraries, but the users. Access is dependent on where you go – whether that is a university, public library or NHS Trust, but accessibility to information and knowledge is a fundamental right for all. The current situation does nothing to further social mobility or inclusivity.

I encourage colleagues to read the call to action and embrace it when evaluating whether to work with or buy from publishers. Use this as a starting point to encourage more sustainability and fair access. Think about how you and your workplace can contribute to a future with more open access publishing. Bit by bit, we can collectively change this landscape. We’re only just getting started.

One response to “Libraries and publishers must make e-books accessible for all

  1. Changing the publishers business model will take international political will & muscle and will likely destroy those businesses, there’s no such thing as a free lunch after all’s said and done.

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