Professor Charles Oppenheim awards HE Minister 0% for effort and calls for face-to-face meeting

Yesterday, we received a very odd letter from Michelle Donelan MP, which left us all scratching our heads in bemusement. The letter can be read here

At a loss for words, for a change, the campaign team handed over the reigns to the esteemed Professor Oppenheim. Please find his analysis of the Minister’s letter below. We thank Professor Oppenheim for his contribution and echo his call for the minister to meet with us and other expert parties face-to-face so we can, once again, clarify the issues and explain her remit to assist.


Michele Donelan MP, the UK’s minister for higher education, has the following remiti:

  • · Strategy for post-16 education (jointly with Gillian Keegan)
  • Universities and higher education reform· Higher education student finance (including the Student Loans Company)
  • Widening participation in higher education
  • Quality of higher education and the Teaching Excellence Framework
  • International education strategy including education exports international students and technology in education
  • Opportunity Areas programme

It’s worth noting, from the point of view of this blogpost, that she has NO remit to promote or help the scholarly publishing industry – that remit belongs elsewhere.

Ms Donelan’s reply to Alex Chalk MPii was published on 18 March 2021iii and has already received numerous comments in social media. Mr Chalk’s original letter raised the problem of the excessive prices that libraries and other users are suffering to access ebooks when compared to the price for purchasing the equivalent hard copy book. These problems have been thoroughly aired, for example in a recent Zoom-based webinariv organised by University College London that was entitled “Ebooks: Scandal or Market Economics” and which attracted hundreds of delegates.

In this blogpost, I want to examine what Ms Donelan had to say about the issues raised. She starts by saying she was sincerely sorry for her delay in replying, but gives no explanation for that nearly four months’ delay. She then says that her Department is not responsible for pricing and licensing practices of independent academic publishing companies, or copyright law. This is disingenuous, because her remit DOES cover all of higher education, and clearly that is being impacted by the pricing approach adopted by many publishers of ebooks. She then acknowledged that the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) is aware of the issues involved.

The next three paragraphs of her response emphasise how supportive HM Government has been for the publishing sector. Since she previously stressed that the publishing industry is not within her Department’s remit, why did she bang on about that? Then she says “We have also been advised by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS) that copyright is a private property right, so it is usually up to the right holder(s) to decide whether, or how, their works may be used by third parties.” [my emphasis – I will come back to that point later]. Well, it’s good to know she has been told what copyright is, although her knowledge is incomplete as she seems to be unaware that there are numerous exceptions to copyright in the law. She clearly needs some basic copyright training. I know of many individuals and organisations that would only be too happy to provide her with the necessary training so she understands these key features of copyright law. Plus, of course, there are some very good textbooks on the topic – maybe DCMS Library holds some, ideally in print form as I’d like reassurance that my taxpayer money isn’t being mis-spent on ebook versions of copyright law textbooks. But then she makes a truly amazing statement in regard the rights held by the copyright owner: “As such, this is a matter that falls outside the government’s control.”

Now I take it, the wording of the letter was provided by civil servants, and that Ms Donelan knows sweet FA about copyright law. All I can say is that either her civil servants are also totally ignorant about copyright law, or they aren’t, but deliberately misled Ms Donelan. This is because of s144 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. This section, which is entitled “Powers exercisable in consequence of report of Competition and Markets Authority”, and confirms the powers of the Secretary of State for BEIS to be able to cancel or modify conditions of licences in licences granted by the owner of copyright in a work restricting the use of the work by a licensee or a “refusal by a copyright owner to grant licences on reasonable terms”. So, that BEIS statement to Ms Donelan that it is usually up to the rights holder to decide on how their works may be used was correct, whilst her civil servants’ interpretation, that licence terms are none of government’s business, is unambiguously incorrect. Her misleading statement is all the more egregious because her civil servants could, and should have told her that a reference to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) has already been made regarding the cost and terms of ebook licences; right now, the CMA is considering the matter.

There’s still more from Ms Donelan. You can imagine her shrugging her shoulders as she adds “Ultimately, copyright licences are private, commercial agreements between the parties concerned and the government plays no role in them……the Office of Students…has adapted its regulatory approach to support providers at this time [she’s referring to the Covid pandemic here] and reduce the regulatory burden.” By “providers”, she’s referring to Universities, and not publishers, but she could equally in practice to referring to publishers. Assuming she does mean Universities, why is reducing the regulatory burden on them relevant to the fact that they are being asked to pay extortionate amounts of money for ebook licences?

She then goes on to state that Universities must ensure that all students “have the support they need to succeed and benefit from HE” and reminds them of their obligations under the Equality Act that learning is accessible to all students. Universities must “provide sufficient and appropriate learning resources” and that it is a matter for individual Universities “to ensure that students have the support they need to succeed and benefit from their HE experience.” She shows here that she doesn’t understand that excessive ebook licence fees are preventing Universities from fulfilling their legal obligations.

So how does one sum up this lengthy “nothing to do with me, guv” excuse of a letter? The Minister is either ignorant about the law, or is deliberately misleading on it. She shows no awareness of the anger in the sector, or the fact that a reference to the CMA on the matter has been made. She seems to have no interest in fighting for her Department against the forces of the private sector and offers no support to the organisations she is meant to protect and improve; so, what is the point of her being in the post she holds? She is more concerned about protecting the publishing industry (which is not an exclusively UK-based industry anyway) than the UK-based organisations she is meant to be protecting and fighting for.

So, what happens next? In addition to the current reference to the CMA, I know that individuals, such as Jane Secker, and organisations, such as the Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance, are keen to support a campaign to challenge the current prices for ebook licences, and one can hope that Alex Chalk will not be satisfied with the Minister’s response and will demand a face-to-face meeting between the two of them, plus other interested parties. Maybe the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals, CILIP, Universities UK and The Russell Group can all be persuaded to join in. This is the start of a process, not the end.

Over the years when I was an academic, I had to mark many student submissions. Sometimes – very rarely – I would give a piece of work 0% and would add the comment “this is an interesting answer, but does not address the question as set”. The Minister’s letter gets 0% from me.

Professor Charles Oppenheim

19 March 2021

ii He sent the email to her on 18 November 2020
iv provides a recording of the event and a summary of the issues raised.

The #ebooksos campaign in Ireland

Very early on in our campaign we were contacted by senior library figures in Ireland who were keen to express their solidarity and to run a sister campaign. The Irish context is quite different to ours but they face similar problems in terms of ebook pricing and availability. Please read this Libfocus piece written by Cathal McCauley to learn more about their approach and future plans. We would like to thank our Irish colleagues for their support and to congratulate them on what has been achieved so far. As Cathal says in his piece, we will be continuing to collaborate with each other to press on with the drive for change. This ebook issue is an international scandal, not just a local one, and we welcome opportunities to connect with partners from across the globe to robustly advocate for equitable and affordable access to resources for all citizens.

libfocus - Irish library blog

700 tickets snapped up for UCL #ebooksos webinar – An event you will not want to miss

Today saw the 700th participant sign up for the UCL Webinar being held on 15th March 2021,

This remarkable level of interest is illustrative of how difficult the current climate is for libraries. Tickets are free and are still available via the link above.

Johanna Anderson, lead campaigner #ebooksos and speaker at the event said,

“This webinar is important for students who want to help us fight for fair information access and use of funding. It is important for academics as, ultimately it is their work being exploited and they need to be informed before choosing who to publish with, and it is important for HE leaders as they have the responsibility to advocate for their staff and students and will be interested to hear about suggestions for collaborative ways forward that present exciting opportunities.

700 people have signed up to the webinar to date, representing a very wide cross-section of interested parties. It is sure to be a lively event and has potential to be the start of a new way forward”

#Ebooksos on Tour

The #Ebooksos team have been hard at work planning a 2021 quarantine armchair tour to discuss the current situation and future plans for the campaign. Please do join us at these events if you can We encourage academics, students and other interested parties to come along as well as librarians. Dealing with the ebook challenge will require a collective effort.

15th March E-Books: Scandal or Market Economics? 2pm -3:30pm (GMT). UCL Office for Open Science & Scholarship/Copyright for Knowledge webinar.
Further details and free tickets available here. Expert speakers are

Dr. Paul Ayris, Pro-Vice-Provost (UCL Library Services & UCL Office for Open Science and Scholarship)
Johanna Anderson, Subject Librarian, University of Gloucestershire and founder of the #eBookSoS campaign
Benjamin White, Researcher, Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management, University of Bournemouth and Chair of the Copyright and Legal Working Group of  the European Research Library Association (LIBER).

500 tickets have been snapped up already so get in quick if you don’t want to miss out

Monday 12th April – Rachel Bickley and Caroline Ball of #EbookSoS will be hosting the #uklibchat discussion on the ebook crisis at 7pm (GMT).

Tuesday 13th AprilUKSG Online Conference Breakout 32: #Ebooksos scandal : the need for critical collection development. This is an on-demand presentation by Johanna Anderson and Cathal MCcauley, University Librarian at Maynooth University, Ireland. We discuss the #ebooksos campaign, the library profession’s role in countering these issues and the long-term consequences if they are not addressed. There will be a live Q&A session to follow (details to be confirmed).

Wednesday 5th May – Johanna Anderson is the keynote for ABC 2021 Virtual Copyright Conference, Canada. Don’t call me brave”: How a subject librarian stepped into a leadership vacuum to challenge #ebooksos scandal”

5th-6th MayCritical Approaches to Libraries Conference (CALC) – Johanna Anderson, Caroline Ball and Rachel Bickley will discuss the ebook crisis and the restrictive impact it has on critical collection development and academic freedoms (Details to be confirmed).

11th-12th May – The Independent Publishers Guild Spring Conference (details to be confirmed)

6th-8th July – Johanna Anderson, Caroline Ball and Rachel Bickley will be discussing Information literacy as activism: standing up to the academic e-book industry at  FestivIL by LILAC (details to be confirmed).


Meanwhile, Publishers Association (PA) have released a report entitled The economic impact of the potential new Open Access (OA) policy from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) which contains the statement

“There are also concerns that the UKRI Policy would exacerbate existing challenges facing the HE sector – which is already managing significant financial and operational pressures due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic”

This was met with some surprise as PA did not seem aware of these “pressures” when they tried to justify their members price-gouging from COVID in the BBC piece that reported on the ebook crisis. For expert analysis of the report we recommend you read this blog post by Martin Paul Eve, Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London. We hope Publishers Association will consider the pressures universities face before trying to justify exploitative practice in the future.

UK Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance join call for ebook investigation

As our open letter attracts over 3600 signatures, UK Libraries and Archives Copyright Alliance has become the latest organisation to join our call for an investigation into the broken academic ebook market.

We very much welcome this support. There may be differing opinions across the sector on what to do about the current crisis but there is broad consensus that the academic ebook market is broken. Only by collective effort can we even begin to fix it

Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP) formally petitions Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to investigate practices of academic ebook publishers

CILIP letter to the Competition and Markets Authority

In discussion with the Academic eBook Investigation campaign, CILIP has written to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) to petition them formally to investigate the practices of publishers in respect of the pricing, licensing terms and availability of academic ebooks, which prevent librarians in Higher Education from fulfilling their public and educational task.

Under their Royal Charter and as a ‘regulatory authority’ for libraries and information services, CILIP has two mandatory roles:

  • To promote and encourage the maintenance of adequate and appropriate provision of library and information services of various kinds throughout the United Kingdom, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man, and;
  • To scrutinise any legislation affecting the provision of library and information services and to promote such further legislation as may be considered necessary to that end.

On the basis of these roles, CILIP has highlighted a number of concerns with the CMA including:

  • A price differential between print and ebooks that cannot be justified by ‘enhanced functionality’;
  • The insecure nature of the licensing arrangements for access to ebooks, which means libraries do not ‘own’ the content they have paid for, and;
  • That restrictions on price and licensing place an unfair constraint on teaching, learning and research;
  • That the culture of confidentiality around pricing inhibits the operation of a fair and balanced market for academic e-content.

Commenting on the campaign, CILIP CEO Nick Poole said,

“We commend our members and colleagues in academic libraries for their work in shedding light on the issue of unsustainable pricing  and licensing conditions for academic ebooks through the Academic eBook Investigation campaign. We will continue to pursue dialogue with all stakeholders in seeking a sustainable long-term solution, but we believe that an intervention from the CMA is necessary to bring all parties to the table to address the issue. We are also reaching out to our network of Parliamentarians to maintain focus on this issue and to push for an equitable resolution.”

Founder of the academic ebook campaign Johanna Anderson said,

We are absolutely delighted to receive the strong endorsement from CILIP, evidenced by this unprecedented move. It is testament to the seriousness of the situation that CILIP have seen fit to formally put the case to CMA and are supporting us in our efforts to secure a full, fair and transparent investigation of the current academic ebook market.

We look forward to the response from CMA with interest

We thank Nick Poole, CILIP and all members of the board for their support.