Go back

Publishers must help universities move online

Image: Pavel Ignatov, via Shutterstock

With libraries closed by coronavirus, digital content needs to be more accessible, says Anna Vernon

With the country on lockdown, universities are under exceptional pressure to deliver digital teaching and learning as the default. It’s a rapid transition from on-campus, face-to-face support to online learning—and the challenge isn’t just one for academics.

University libraries are tasked not just with ensuring that digital content supports this widened remit; they also need to extend access to printed content, sharing materials in ways that are digital, usable and legal.

This is a challenge as, unlike journals, many books aren’t available digitally. The demand is there—universities and colleges would rather buy digital content than printed books but they have been thwarted by licensing terms that are unsuitable, too expensive or both.

Libraries have used a variety of methods to manage access to book content from buying multiple printed copies to providing access via publisher and aggregator platforms and, in rare cases, including the cost of e-textbooks in students’ course fees.

Libraries also use the Copyright Licensing Agency’s higher education licence to share extracts from books, magazines, journals and websites. In practice, this is mostly used to digitise content from print books for use in teaching.

Shut out

But with libraries up and down the country closing their doors to users and staff alike, loaning essential reading material or digitising print books is no longer feasible. In response, the sector has pulled together with bodies coming together to issue a statement that asks providers and licensors to give greater access to their digital content and provides a step-by-step guide to help make this happen.

Now is the time for publishers and content providers to offer broad and unfettered access to all content and software. Recognising the need for simple solutions will be essential as libraries work to support students and academics.

One signatory of the joint statement is the Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium, which negotiates the framework agreements for books and periodicals for many universities. As teaching, learning, and research move wholly online the pressure on digital resources will be significant—and possibly too great to be accommodated by existing institutional licences.

Thankfully, many platforms and publishers are working to resolve these problems. Those willing to relax restrictions, in some cases making key content freely available, will help learning to continue. Extending access to materials helps avoid a situation where wealthy students can afford to buy their own and others have to do without.

The measures put in place now are critical in giving students from all backgrounds the best possible educational experience and allowing research collaborations to continue. It is about ensuring everyone in the higher education sector can still produce high-quality work in these exceptional circumstances.

We are working with publishers and library providers to see how they are opening up their content so that it becomes clear which materials are available and for how long. We will also be working with publishers to put in place clear exit arrangements so that users are not cut off from core material too quickly as normality returns.

If you are a publisher or content provider and want to tell us about the measures you are taking please get in touch.

Anna Vernon is head of licensing at Jisc Collections