Rachel Bickley is the Senior Academic Liaison Librarian at London Metropolitan University, and one of the authors of the Open Letter and activist in the #ebooksos campaign

In the time since a small group of academic librarians launched the #ebooksos campaign with an Open Letter asking for an investigation into the academic ebook publishing industry, we have faced some questioning of our actions.

In spite of the letter having attracted, at the time of writing, signatures from over 3800 librarians, lecturers, students, heads of services, university senior managers and two vice chancellors, indicating that the cost and availability of ebooks is a significant concern across the sector, there have still been suggestions that perhaps we could sit down and discuss the issues with the publishers instead.

However, these issues are not new. The pandemic has brought the lack of availability of ebooks for institutional access, and the astronomical prices and restrictive licences under which those which are available can be procured, into sharp focus, but librarians have been dealing with this situation for a long time. Dialogue with publishers has been attempted, but it went nowhere useful. The investigation route was not a knee-jerk reaction to being unable to obtain the resources that we need for our students; it was the only option that those of us who set up the campaign could see remaining.

Licences and choices

It has been suggested that market pressure could be a means of forcing change in publisher practices. The problem is, however, that market pressure does not exist here. Libraries cannot purchase Kindle copies of ebooks, as individuals can. We must buy versions licensed for institutional use. This is where the academic publishers have their captive market. We cannot price-match. We cannot shop around. We cannot just head over to Amazon to buy the cheaper version. Publishers can choose what to make available, under which conditions, and what to charge for it, and the key players in the academic publishing industry are all behaving in the same way; as Anthony Sinnott explained in a previous Wonkhe article on the issue, the “industry standard” is problematic.

It might seem that the obvious answer is for academics to choose alternative core texts for their modules. However, in certain cases, the texts are prescribed; for example, for courses which are accredited by professional bodies, part of the conditions of accreditation is often the inclusion of specific titles on reading lists. In other cases, modules have historically been designed around one or several supporting textbooks, meaning that an entire module re-design has been required when these textbooks cannot be obtained digitally (while it might be suggested that in these scenarios, the students should be buying the books themselves, the fact is that not all students are in a position to do this, and reference-only print copies in the library collections which have previously allowed these students to keep up have not been accessible this year).

Even where module leaders are both willing and able to select alternative titles, it is not a simple exercise of trawling publishers’ websites to see what is available and affordable; the price and availability quoted on their webpage will be for individual purchase, and will give no guarantee of the library being able to procure it. Upon investigation, there is a good chance that library staff would find it available only on specific third-party platforms, quite possibly only in pricey bundles, which would mean the library spending precious funds on titles no one actually wants in order to purchase that one. The lack of transparency over availability to libraries creates a lot of extra work for everyone involved in creating or sourcing reading lists.

New models, new problems

Those of us working on the frontline have observed the trend of publishers morphing many of their offerings into e-textbook models, whereby libraries are charged an annual fee to retain access to the book for a set number of students. Even where this is not happening, increased prices and temporary and/or single-user licences are becoming considerably more common. Such action, as Anthony points out, is “creating revenue where none previously existed” (for the publishers). As part of the campaign, library workers have been adding examples of restrictive licences and extortionate pricing to a crowd-sourced spreadsheet, which highlights evidence that the majority of the well-known academic publishers are participating in these profitable practices. And here exactly lies the problem when it comes to market pressure – there simply is none.

We believed that the lack of market pressure in the industry merited a submission to the Competitions and Markets Authority. We submitted our complaint under several of the charges listed on the main criteria, namely that the market is anti-competitive and that it is not working well enough for educational institutions to be able to fulfil student resource needs (something which Michelle Donelan has been quick to remind universities is their responsibility, in response to questions about student refunds during the pandemic), as well as behaving unfairly during the Covid-19 crisis.

The Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) supported the submission with a formal petition to the CMA to take up the complaint, with chief executive Nick Poole saying that “we believe that an intervention from the CMA is necessary to bring all parties to the table to address the issue”. We are awaiting a response beyond an acknowledgement of receipt of our report.

Now and next

In the meantime, with libraries unable to fulfil requests for digital copies required for teaching and learning, and library budgets unable to stretch to the demands of the industry, librarians are advising academics to look elsewhere for their reading list material, with some libraries considering re-written collection development policies prioritising Open Access content and titles which can be purchased from publishers who are behaving fairly. While this is a welcome move which we hope will start to shift the balance of power away from the big names, it remains unethical for so much content to be effectively held hostage by licensing and cost. Professional registration bodies accrediting courses frequently instruct that specific texts must be held in the library collections, and, anyway, academic staff should be able to select the titles which best support their students’ learning.

The sector appears to be in agreement that blended learning is likely here to stay, even once social distancing is a thing of the past. Even before the pandemic, many libraries were favouring an “e-first” model of book purchasing in order to provide access to as many students as possible. Ebooks will continue to be a much-needed resource in higher education, and this is why we hope that the CMA will intervene to create a genuinely fair and competitive market.

8 responses to “There’s big problems with the market for academic ebooks

  1. I couldn’t agree more. These publisher pricing practises effectively deny the right of a library to exist and share knowledge equitably among all students. It’s bizarre that while the world seems to be moving towards more sharing/renting of resources these companies pursue a per-student pricing model. Over on their journal publishing side these same companies are moving to Open Access models because they’ve been forced to having failed to move with the times. It’s time for universities to throw their weight behind open access book publishing and for academics to do some soul searching about who they publish with.

    1. But even with OA journal publishing, they’re still finding ways to throw the cost back on to libraries and universities, with APCs!

  2. We were not aware of the event to “debate the future of learning resources” which is promoted at the end of the article, and have not been invited to participate, indeed, it took immense effort and
    peresistence to have our voices given space by WonkHe, as featured in this article, at all

    Johanna Anderson #ebooksos

    If you want to know more from librarian and academic POV, this very popular and well received webinar -‘Ebooks: Scandal or Market Economics?’ webinar by UCL Is worth a listen https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/open-access/2021/03/17/ebooks-webinar/

      1. Given that it became clear in the same twitter thread that an article had been proposed by the #ebooksos team (and rejected by Wonkhe) in November, this one tweet does not really help Wonkhe’s position here. Furthermore, to then accept Rachel’s piece but use it to promote an event that neither she nor the other people involved in the project were invited to seems a little disingenuous, if not actually unethical.

        Thank you for this piece Rachel, it provides a really good overview of the problem and explains why so many library and information professionals have signed onto the #ebooksos campaign.

        1. Thanks for providing some context, Renee Johanna replied similar re them having taken this out of context. They banned her from ‘wonkhe for life’, accusing her of ‘sustained personl attacks’ but refuse to provide examples. ‘the home of academic debate ‘? Clearly not.

          The home of kortext PR.
          There are a lot of us dismayed by yesterday’s behaviour by wonkhe. Using their position to stifle inconvenient debate

  3. “The lack of transparency over availability to libraries creates a lot of extra work for everyone involved in creating or sourcing reading lists.” Would this “transparency” problem be solved by including textbook business models in library workflow tools like Gobi, Rialto, etc.?

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