Update : Academic publishing has clearly been riling poor Anthony all weekend….more thoughts below 🙂 Please read

I would like to expand on the points made regarding the things that the ‘current industry standards’ actually do, from a Library perspective, beyond all the shiny marketing claims. These are my impressions and are, of course, open to debate from other professionals that may have a different perspective and (naturally) from publishers who definitely do. It would be very nice, for once, to actually have that debate instead of only experiencing marketing speak.

Create revenue where none previously existed. This refers to the fact that it is an atypical scenario for an institution to invest in every single student getting an individual copy of every single book (limited examples of a significant book being purchased for students on a particular module/course notwithstanding). The idea that every single student who might see or read a particular text must be accounted for (in terms of revenue generation) is one that simply does not exist for the physical resources that we buy. The attempt to establish this as the norm for e-books, is an attempt to capture revenue from spaces where none would have existed, and justify this by describing the new resource (e-book) as being fundamentally different enough to warrant this. 

It is not that this is an inherently bad thing, it is within every businesses right to explore revenue streams, it is that it is so cynically engineered and constructed through heavy handed restriction of an ostensibly open product and hidden from any transparency. It is also overtly lied about, as the experience of our eyes and our activities demonstrate daily that not all e-books are created equally and the vast majority are poor/average copies of existing work. If publishers are so desperate to generate new revenue streams, they should do so by increasing quality to the extent that it can be honestly marketed as a much improved new thing and sold openly on those terms. Simply describing something as ‘better’ and demanding more money for it, when everyone who purchases it can plainly see that it is not is bound to cause frustration building over time to fury.

Severely reduce opportunities for second hand markets to exist. As well as all the fancy bells and whistles surrounding e-books, they also inherently contain the ability for the owner to apply access restrictions beyond the point of purchase. There are arguments to be had about second hand transmission of copyrighted work that continually play out among smarter and more informed professionals than I. There is no suggestion that there are not ethical and financial dimensions to this discussion that would warrant a far more nuanced approach than a paragraph. I put this in to highlight that, in this context, the issue is that it represents a significant shift in power and control to the publisher and is simply never discussed. We assume that making sure that any avenues by which access is obtained without being paid for is blocked would be the goal of publishers but we never see this articulated (strategically or objectively) 

Therefore, we are left to assume that this is the goal and that frustrating DRM is the tool to achieve this. We are in the business of serving our communities and anything that is of detriment to their experience has a real impact on value to us. If buying into these technologies reduces the flexibility of student activity later, then this automatically makes it more dangerous and less valuable to us, no matter how much marketing material is produced to describe it as ‘more flexible’. Publishers should be more open about their goals in this area, and understand that these goals reduce our perception of how valuable their product is (if they limit its future usefulness) and that silence in this area makes us assume bad intentions.

Tie institutions to platforms. I am referring here to the fact that University acquisition teams often place value on flexibility and the freedom to apply choice. Anything that abrogates this feels like an attempt to squeeze us into somewhere we don’t necessarily want to go. If the only way to buy your book is to tie ourselves to a platform that we otherwise would not consider, then this is limiting behaviour that is likely to cause us significant ethical, logistical, and practical issues that we will not thank you for.

Retain ownership and overall control of the resource in a way that means it can ultimately be denied to the user at the whim of the publisher. When a relationship is damaged, it becomes typical for the sides to start assuming the worst of the other. Many of us believe, due to behaviour that we have been exposed to, that the end goal for a great many academic publishers is this. To be in a position where they sell us a product then retain control over that product to the extent that they can still determine who sees it and how, and use that to demand further purchase of their product down the line. Many of us have come to believe it, because it has happened. Too many times. You might not like that we now believe this, indeed it may seem deeply unfair to you, but this lack of trust is entirely down to (what we consider to be) unseemly practices that are self serving at best. If you are unhappy or surprised that you are perceived in this way then I would suggest that self reflection is in order.

Front load all risk and ‘future use costs’ to the institution at the point of initial sale. This is the issue that I am most personally invested in. It is the idea that Libraries must take all of the risk and foot the entire bill for actual usage, possible usage, hoped for usage, and fictional future usage at the first point of sale. This is so inflexibly rigid, unimaginative, and inflexible that it forestalls a huge amount of potential constructive work. It is one of my great professional frustrations and a source of profound anger that professional publishers approach this space with such paucity of ambition and limited thinking. There are certainly ways to address this, purchasing models that could tie revenues to actual usage, spread the risk at first purchase, allow for self determination and untether some of the untapped potential of ebooks but these remain locked away behind the flat out refusal of publishers to engage beyond baby steps. 

The irony is that Universities are always ready to invest in new systems and developments, and Librarians are one of the most open communities that exist, it is a ripe area for trial and error, for experimentation and for exciting adventures into the boundaries of what could be possible combining digital resources with accessible pedagogy. All of this untapped potential stops at the point when we are told “Nope. Single user only. And it’s 50x more expensive because lots of future people might use it.” We require more acknowledgement of the fact that we have significant skills and experience that could contribute to vast improvements in this area. Refusal to engage in this area will, likely, continue the race to the bottom that we are currently in.

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