Digital access to core textbooks?

A call for sustainable provision in UK HE sector

Photo of a door lock to illustrate lack of access.

Equitable access

There has been a rapid move towards digital provision of teaching resources, escalated by the pandemic. However, academics are discovering that e-textbooks that support a course or module of study are not easily available, and when they are it’s at a premium price. The library detailed the issue of varying licences, availability and pricing  earlier in the year. This unchecked situation creates a confusing system of digital provision throughout academic libraries that leads to uneven access to digital content across disciplines and programmes.

There are a number of campaigns that are seeking to address this issue within the sector, most well known is #ebooksos lead by a group of concerned library professionals. In recent weeks though a position paper from SCONUL , endorsed by many key organisations and stakeholders, has formalised this movement into a number of calls to action for the academic publishing and supply sector:

1.  Libraries must not be excluded from purchasing the titles they need

Libraries should be able to buy all e-books that are available to individuals and without subject to unilateral withdrawal by publishers as desired.

2.  Pricing models and pricing must be made openly available on publisher web sites to enable comparisons to be made

Transparent pricing allows libraries and academics the opportunity to judge the relative value alongside print formats and similar titles when making decisions about library acquisitions.

3.  Recurrent subscription models must not be the only option

Perpetual purchase options must be available to allow libraries to have a degree of ownership to content they have paid for. Recurrent subscription should only be available if there is clear ‘value add’ through interactivity or multimedia alongside the e-book.

4.   Premium Pricing Models should be the exception rather than the norm.

Libraries do not expect to buy one copy per student to meet demand so licences that only offer this model are outside normal library purchasing behaviour.  Basing this pricing on the predict loss of revenue from students all buying a copy of text otherwise are unrealistic.

5.  All e-books must be made accessible.

Accessibility should be a higher priority with publishers to support inclusive educational practices and meet minimum standards.

What are we doing?

The library will, wherever possible purchase e-books for our users. We are using a number of different purchase options to make sure we have digital coverage available to match need, particularly for exams. These include;

  • looking for open access alternatives
  • purchase of multiple limited user licences
  • providing CLA scans of key chapters
  • use of etextbook subscription services, if not available elsewhere

If there is a text we don’t have as an e-book please contact your Liaison Librarian.and we will try and order for you. Hopefully being aware of the issues and challenges around ebook licences and models, you will understand if this is not always possible and work with us to find alternatives.

What can you do?

A briefing from JISC Learning Content Group also details what academic staff can do to support the provision of affordable and sustainable e-textbooks.

If you write a textbook for a publisher:
  • Know and understand your agreement with them, including what rights you have over the content you produce, and what say you have in how it will be marketed and sold. There are some key suggested questions you could pose complied by #ebooksos.
If you include titles on reading lists:
  • Don’t rely on a core title that offers the complete reading required for your programme. Refer to multiple books and consider a “course pack” approach
  • Involve your liaison librarian in your resource selection to help identify available, affordable or open resources.
  • Make use of existing digital resources that offer good access, such as articles from e-journals, and open access collections without usage restrictions so they can be accessed by all.

You could also support the campaign and sign the open letter to UK government.


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