We are delighted that our open letter has now surpassed 3000 signatures. We are not going away. Thanks to everyone who signed and shared the letter. We will keep pushing for the investigation we so desperately need. Can we make it to 5000?
Written for The Guardian by Anna Fazackerley
Our campaign features in today’s Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/education/2021/jan/29/price-gouging-from-covid-student-ebooks-costing-up-to-500-more-than-in-print
Please do read it. It is a fantastic piece. Anna has done an impressive job in illustrating the complexities of the situation with data and comment from Higher Education staff across the UK,
Thank you Anna!
As we approach the second semester in the academic year, we still await meaningful intervention in the ebook crisis from those in power. Arguably, we are in a far more critical situation than at the start of the pandemic when the severe lock-down began in March 2020. Students now have significantly reduced access to resources for the following reasons.
1) In March 2020, several academic publishers and 3rd party vendors announced, to much fanfare, that they were opening up access to many of their resources for free. Whilst this move was welcomed by many in Higher Education, much of the content was withdrawn as little as three months later while COVID was still raging. Access has not been reinstated during this most recent lock-down. (One has to wonder if the original offer was little but a cynical marketing strategy).
2) Unlike March 2020, many students are starting the semester away from campus and so cannot make the dash to access hardcopy resources as they may have done last year.
Furthermore, Semester 2 is when level 6 students have dissertations and final year projects to complete and will be heavily reliant on research methods books. Electronic research methods books are notoriously difficult to purchase because key research methods publishers, such as Sage, do not allow academic libraries to purchase their titles in ebook format.
Many libraries have had little choice but to provide new postal services to try to get books to students. Given that we supposedly live in the digital age, this situation is nothing but perverse. It is also far from ideal because the logistics of getting the books off the shelves and out to students, processing their return, and quarantining them is putting immense pressure on already stressed and exhausted library staff. Not to mention the emotional labour of supporting students who are frustrated and anxious at not being able to access the resources they need in a timely manner. This approach is also placing additional financial burden onto library services.
Librarians, academics and, more importantly, students, cannot wait for senior figures to act at this critical time in the HE cycle. Librarians are increasingly turning to the complex world of open access resources to fill the huge holes in information provision bought about by traditional academic publisher business models. There is hope that open access will become more and more commonplace going forward.
One example is a crowd-sourced list, compiled by librarians, of open access research methods resources . It can be accessed here – Research Methods – Open Access Resources
We encourage you to share this list with students and academics and to add anything you think might be helpful. We would like to thank Tobias Steiner for launching and overseeing this initiative . It will be an invaluable resource for students and staff.
Another inspiring example is featured in a new guest contribution entitled, Promoting Open Access Resources in Programme (Re)Validations. Posted here with kind permission from Dr Clare McCluskey Dean, Academic Liaison Librarian of York St John University
by Dr Clare McCluskey Dean, Academic Liaison Librarian
A recent revalidation of a course suite, in a subject area for which I am the library liaison, brought to a head the problems in providing online access to programme resources. This is both in terms of access during lockdown, preventing unnecessary handling of print sources and the associated health risks with that for library workers and users, and also because these courses involve placements or distance learning where the students will not have easy access to campus anyway.
There were three key areas that needed addressing.
- The lack of availability of ebooks from traditional academic publishers, due to them either not being offered at all, only being offered on restrictive, unfair models, or because of prohibitively high costs.
- The inaccessibility of ebooks supplied to libraries, with DRM often stopping users relying on screen-readers decent access to texts. This is particularly with the use of third-party software stopping the download of books, or sections of books, to the formats needed.
- The lack of representation of sections of society, and inherent marginalisation, in the content of many traditionally-published texts, and the wish to find alternative sources to try and counteract this.
The academics involved in the revalidation asked me to participate at the stage where all of the modules to be designed had been outlined, but the content of them was still to be decided. I had the aims and outcomes to work with, and some suggested readings that could help as a starting point, and the remit to build up potential resource lists for each module which helped address these three core issues.
I decided that open access sources provided one way of addressing all three of them, to some extent. By their nature, they are designed to be accessible without payment. They are usually readable online, or downloadable to PDF, and testing of a sample showed that they were screen-reader compatible. In addition, I could check the contents more easily to identify works from a number of different viewpoints, and particularly found works from writers in countries which were not represented in the texts we had in stock, purchased in the traditional way by academic publishers. This is one step in trying to address representation, acknowledging that this should not stop here or be a token gesture.
We started by looking for open access books, with a view to having core lists in place for each module. From here, once module leaders have been appointed for the actual teaching, I can work with them on locating a wider range of sources. I used Oapen, DOAB and LibreTexts as my main search tools.
I took the approach of putting all of the modules into a stand-alone reading list. For each module, I took the indicative titles from traditional publishers supplied by the academics, and gave notes as to their current availability (or otherwise) in ebook format, and potential costs in their further use. After this, I introduced other texts from existing traditional publishers that may be useful, again with notes as to availability and trying to surface the ones which provide DRM-free access. Finally, I also ensured that open access resources were added where ones appropriate to the content of the module could be located.
Generally I found there to be a good range of titles available in open access format, and this is only going to develop as more academic authors find their work restricted by traditional publishing set-ups. They are much easier for students to use, with no passwords needed for future access if they bookmark them, full download is available so they can save them wherever they like, and they work with assistive technology in the format available to all.
I plan to make more posts about this, with more specific examples of where open access texts have been used in module design and/or delivery in order to enhance learning. It’s my hope that we can find alternative ways of providing access to information when the cost of obtaining or providing access to resources has proven to be too high in either monetary or accessibility terms, and find a sustainable way forward.
Note : A longer version of this post is available, with links to references and further reading.
With their fingers firmly in their ears, academic publishers are still busy trying to tout their ebooks to academics. Emails such as the following, which was received by academics today from Oxford University Press (one of the worst culprits in the ebook pricing scandal)
I hope teaching is going well in this very unusual year.
Like everyone else, at OUP we have had to adapt to a virtual way of working for the foreseeable future. At this time of year I am usually on campus visiting lecturers, discussing how staff and students are using our textbooks and beginning to share news of our upcoming publications.
Over the summer period, one of the main focuses for institutions has been on our digital offerings. It would be great to talk with you about our textbooks and how they can meet your course needs digitally, and the ways that we can make that happen for you.
If you are available over the next few weeks for a meeting over Teams or by phone to discuss our titles in more detail, please let me know and we can get this scheduled.
I look forward to hearing from you and as always, any questions do not hesitate to get in touch.
Senior Lecturer at University of Gloucestershire, and campaign supporter, Dr Rachel Sumner, shared her response
I hope you’re well. Many thanks for getting in touch, and for starting the conversation about e-books. With the advent of Covid, e-books are not only increasingly important for students to provide good educational support, but their provision would undoubtedly assist in driving down infection through minimising on-campus contact, and potential infection transference on book surfaces. It seems that they are indeed quite the useful tool not just for ensuring a good standard for education, but also in terms of helping with public health issues.
You may be interested to hear that I have recently developed a new postgraduate course in health psychology, and as such I have been looking for new materials to recommend to my students. As a lecturer who teaches across quite broad subject areas (health psychology, biological psychology, environmental psychology, ethics, and neuroscience) there are several titles that OUP provide that would most definitely be of interest.
I’m sure you can appreciate that – as an educator – my principle interests are not just ensuring that students are provided with the best possible resources, but also that they and their education are treated fairly. The very recent habit of publishers massively hiking up their e-book prices in what I can only assume is a cynical response to the Covid-19 pandemic is a particularly unpleasant trend that I believe that OUP have participated in, and that I would very much like to see the end of.
Whilst I would be happy to discuss what OUP may be able to offer in terms of my teaching, I’m afraid without a commitment to the fair pricing of e-books that is not seemingly based on opportunism, I’m afraid I will decline. I should assure you that this is an increasingly important issue amongst staff in HE, so much so that our own staff have been very outspoken in their fight to ensure that our students are treated fairly by publishers. I wanted to take this opportunity to let you know that as academics who also generate publishable work, we are also looking very closely at how publishers are responding in light of Covid, with a direct view as to the decisions we make about the publication of our own articles and books.
Whilst I appreciate that you as a rep do not set the costs for these materials, I do very much hope this response gets fed back to those that make these decisions so that a different strategy may be employed in the near future.
Rachel kindly agreed let us post this on our blog as it is going to take all of us; librarians, academics and students to bring about change. We hope this post will inspire more academics to follow suit and increase the pressure on academic publishers to rethink.
Following the disappointing response from the Education Select Committee yesterday, we have been considering our next move. While it is fantastic that we have succeeded in raising awareness of the issue in Westminster, we are still in the position of not being able to buy key text books for our students during an ongoing global health crisis. The approaching holiday season is going to make the situation even more critical as students will not be able to access physical library resources. They will have assignments to complete over Christmas without the resources to support them. This is not acceptable.
What are we going to do?
We are going to take our case to the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) as publishers are “behaving unfairly during the Covid outbreak” It can also be strongly argued that several of these charges listed here can be applied to the academic publishing market. Throughout the campaign thus far, we have collected a lot of data to support our position and we intend to persist in holding publishers to account.
What can you do?
- This started as a grass-roots campaign but we really need support from sector leaders. Following the media attention generated by the campaign, we have heard that library teams are being contacted by Pro-VCs and VCs to find out more about the issues with ebooks and how they can help. Academics and Librarians, please consider contacting your institution’s leadership team and ask them to support our campaign, raise the issue with the local MP and lobby Universities UK, “the collective voice of 140 universities in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland” to support and raise the issue with the UK Government whenever possible.
- Librarians should consider advising academics to pull unavailable or prohibitively expensive titles from their reading lists and to tell the publishers why they have done so.
- Library Services should ask that the authors in their institutions contact their librarians to find out what their books are being sold to universities for and, if excessive, complain to the relevant publishers.
- Library Directors should consider writing and publishing a position policy such as the “Lobbying for Fairer Ebook Access” document written by Dr Clare McCluskey Dean for York St John University. We need to be clear that we will not purchase from publishers who have exploitative practices.
- We know money is tight right now but we would also urge conference and event organisers to refuse sponsorship from exploitative publishers. We should also not allow them to advertise/market on campus
Everyone, please also consider contacting your MP and your library leadership teams.
Please feel free to comment below with further suggestions,
The open letter can still be read and signed here https://academicebookinvestigation.org/
We have just received the following response to our open letter from the Education Select Committee
“Our Committee has a packed forward programme so we don’t have any capacity for further inquiries at the moment. However, I am very aware of this campaign on the accessibility, cost and licensing of e-books and perhaps if we have Ministers before our Committee, this is something we can ask about“
Obviously we are very disappointed but, given the difficult circumstances in the civil service due to COVID, we are not surprised. However, we are not giving up. We will continue to press the issue with the Education Select Committee and would urge our supporters to contact their MPs and ask that they take action too. We would encourage VCs , Pro VCs and sector leaders to support our campaign and use any influence they have to help us.
We are also considering other avenues we could peruse such as the competition commission.
Meanwhile, we are left not being able to provide students with access to books. We do not think that is in any way acceptable and will continue to fight on.
Please keep sharing and signing our letter.
Following coverage of the campaign by BBC New Online and Times Higher Education the issues are receiving much more attention with more people wanting to sign the letter. With this in mind, though Alex Chalk (MP) has delivered the letter to the Chair of Education Select Committee, we intend to keep the letter open for signatures and will forward any additional signatures on in due course. It is important that the full strength of feeling is communicated.
We are delighted to receive support from Professor David Green (CBE), Vice Chancellor of Worcester University and we hope others will follow suit. It is important that university leaders are aware of the issues and also advocate for fair access to resources for our students.
Please continue sharing the letter and encouraging others to sign.
Johanna, Rachel and Caroline
On Friday 13th November our campaign was featured on BBC News Online, University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal.
Current academic publishing practice is a matter of public interest as it has a negative impact on society and, ultimately, we all pay the price. It was a fantastic article which raised the issue beyond the academic community.
However, we were frustrated to see it contained disappointing but unsurprising comments from several publishers and the Publishers Association. In response, Anthony Sinnott, Access and Procurement Development Manager, University of York wrote the following excellent rebuttal, which we urge you all to read.
” I am in enthusiastic support of The Campaign to Investigate the Academic E-Book Market started by @hohojanna. I shared and read with interest, the article that the BBC penned about this well justified activity. I have been thinking, over the weekend, about the publisher contributions to this piece and have articulated them below as it is easier to consider them as a whole rather than tweeting separately about all the individual points of interest.
This is the BBC News story: University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal’ publisher contributions are in italic below and my response follows each quote.
Stephen Lotinga, chief executive of the Publishers Association, said the industry understood the budgetary pressures facing libraries, but added: “Many of the examples cited by this campaign are not comparing like for like.
It is very difficult to take this comment at face value. We are inundated with slick marketing material encouraging us to take up one of the ‘per student pricing’ models and in all of these, the relative pricing of a print title and access per student is highlighted as a selling point. It seems shifty at best to take the position that the comparison between print and digital cost is fine to be used as a mechanism to sell products but suddenly problematic when used to highlight value disparity.
It is this kind of casual dismissal that presents a blocker to proper discussion about this issue. Anyone with more than a passing knowledge of e-book pricing understands that it is a surface level dismissal at best and it speaks to a desire to avoid any transparent or nuanced discussion. The Publishers Association should recognise that these complaints are coming from experienced and knowledgeable professionals who have an intimate understanding of the complexities and require more meaningful engagement than empty platitudes at this point.
“Prices will vary according to the level of use a book receives and the investment made in creating the product. A digital textbook is often put together using multiple authors over a long period, is regularly updated, has additional functionality and might be used by entire cohorts of students on a course or lent thousands of times.”
This point seems to be little more than a bait and switch. It utterly ignores the reality that many librarians and publishing specialists are presented with daily. Digital textbooks are just as often simple PDFs with minimal accessibility and there are thousands that are absolutely nothing more than scans of a pre-existing text. The argument seeks to take a reality that is true for a tiny minority of the resources in question and use it to apply to all, again hugely oversimplifying a complex ecosystem in an insulting and condescending manner that does not indicate a desire for meaningful discussion.
On the most basic level it ignores the fact that print books can also potentially be used by entire cohorts of students, especially when factoring in the type of crippling DRM common among e-books purchased via aggregator (at the insistence of publishers). We understand the difference between the two, but the Publishers Association seems to have little knowledge of the fact that we assess value on an individual, context sensitive, basis and that we are perfectly capable of factoring the positives of e-books and the negatives of limited license when making these comparisons. In short, it doesn’t matter how many times a single user licensed e-book is used, it is never worth 10 x the print price.
However, publisher Taylor & Francis, which also owns Routledge, said: “Comparing individual print costs to a digital licence which gives access to many readers does not represent the reality of how the different formats are used.”
Not like for like, as I expect Taylor & Francis know, having explained this to their representatives on multiple occasions, but as a frame of reference to justify increased costs, it is certainly illustrative and important. Again, publishers seek to ignore the fact that print usage is not entirely divorced from e usage in the manner that they would like it to be.
“Taylor & Francis believe our e-textbooks are fairly and competitively priced for the library market.”
It is eminently understandable that this is their position, it would be disturbing if it wasn’t. However, this ignores the completely arbitrary nature of e-book pricing, the massive shifts in cost, the sudden withdrawals from sale, the changes in terms of access, and the complete lack of transparency around the whole thing. In light of that reality, terms like ‘fairly’ and ‘competitively’ come across as self-serving, dishonest, and utterly indifferent to the widespread condemnation of their practices seen in the letter.
The company also pointed out that during the pandemic and lockdown it had provided some free e-book access to students as well as free upgrades to libraries from single to unlimited user access.
Like many other publishers, and gratitude was expressed from all quarters for the generosity of some publishers and providers. Is the pandemic over, though? Did I miss that? Are we not now in another lockdown? The fact that we are hearing about publisher support in the past tense from their own association is far more damning than anything I could say at this point.
What is also true, though, is some publishers used extended access as an open sales pitch, while others withdrew said access with extreme haste. There have also been disturbing examples of massive price increases on individual titles, since February, with no corresponding increase in quality, access, or additional features. It is massively difficult not to view this with extreme cynicism.
Helen Kogan, managing director of publisher Kogan Page, said the firm’s pricing was “consistent with industry standards”.
“It allows flexible options for multi-user and perpetual access licences which provide a fair return to authors and ensure investment in high-quality, rigorous academic e-books to support students’ learning.”
Are there industry standards to e-book pricing? This will come as a massive surprise to acquisition librarians no two of whom have ever detected the slightest scintilla of pattern to the arbitrary and capricious smog that is e-book pricing (beyond the constant upward trajectory). In this case, consistent with industry standards seems a substitute for ‘equally vague, confusing, and disjointed’.
The unsaid, obvious, things that the current ‘industry standard’ pricing models do are:
- Create revenue where none previously existed
- Severely reduce opportunities for second hand markets to exist
- Tie institutions to platforms
- 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
- Front load all risk and ‘future use costs’ to the institution at the point of initial sale
I can understand why none of the above are covered by publishers as part of their marketing and PR but they are true nonetheless, and until we can have actual conversations about these things that are detailed and meaningful then it is difficult to see how progress can be made.
Overall, initial reactions from publishers are expectedly disappointing. I hope they decide to engage in a more constructive way in the future and look forward to next steps. My conviction is that Open Access is the only viable resolution long term but I applaud everyone involved in this action and think it is the most active stance currently being taken (which I very much appreciate)
Anthony has since expanded on these comments. Please see page 2 for more