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Librarians demand ‘imminent action’ on costly ebooks

Education committee urged to investigate pricing and licensing practices regarding ebooks

Hundreds of librarians and academics are calling for urgent regulation of “unaffordable” ebooks during the coronavirus crisis, which has made access to online books crucial for students and researchers.

In an open letter, more than 700 UK-based academic librarians, researchers, university lecturers and students called on Robert Halfon, chair of the House of Commons Education Committee, to investigate the academic publishing industry over its pricing and licensing practices regarding ebooks.

“The Covid-19 pandemic, where students and researchers have not been able to physically visit libraries and access paper books, has brought the many market issues regarding ebooks sharply into focus as ebooks have become our only purchase option,” they wrote.

Under copyright law, university libraries are required to purchase a version of the ebook specifically licensed for university use. However, academic books are often not available to institutions to license as an ebook and universities are forbidden by law from scanning whole books they own in print, the academics said.

If an ebook is available to license by a university, “it is almost always more expensive, and frequently significantly and prohibitively so”, they said, while price rises are also common.

Moreover, “publishers can, and do, withdraw ebook licences previously purchased by a library and are increasingly forcing a new licence to be purchased annually for an ebook already in the collection”.

As a consequence, university librarians are finding that much of the ebook content is either “unavailable or prohibitively expensive”.

“The result is that many lecturers are now facing the prospect of having to design their teaching content around what reading is actually available electronically and what is affordable,” they said, adding that “this does not support a vibrant higher education sector producing world-beating research”.

With the academic year “only days away”, the authors urged the government to take “imminent action to ensure that research, information and ideas are accessible to those enrolling in our universities”.

The campaign was started by Johanna Anderson, a subject librarian for natural and social sciences at a UK university.

“I have a budget for the school which I have to split up across different courses, including all three years of undergraduate study, postgraduate study and some researchers,” she told Research Professional News. “That’s hundreds of modules I have to provide resources for. If every ebook is £500 for one user licence, we simply can’t do that.”

“Instead of supporting students through a really stressful time and making sure everything was there and available, I’ve just spent hours and hours unsuccessfully trying to source resources. Now they are all back and it’s still an impossible situation,” she said. “With a second lockdown looking increasingly more likely, I’m not going back to hard copies if I can help it, so I’m still trying to buy ebooks.”

Research Professional News has approached the Commons Education Committee for comment.