E-textbook subscriptions expensive and unsustainable, librarians warn

The librarian associations and purchasing consortia warned students were at risk of missing out on vital texts if the situation was not resolved

A group of higher education sector bodies have called on publishers to offer more affordable pricing for e-books and e-textbooks.

The group wrote in an open letter: “Economic and technological changes in the current publishing market have led to libraries being increasingly excluded from, or priced out of, providing e-books and e-textbooks for students and library users.

“Many of the models and fees charged by publishers have either become prohibitively expensive, or libraries are no longer permitted to purchase these titles at all, creating an unsustainable situation.”

The group includes the campaign group #ebookSOS, Jisc, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL), the Chartered Institute of Library and Information Professionals (CILIP), National Acquisitions Group (NAG), Research Libraries UK (RLUK), Advanced Procurement for Universities & Colleges (APUC) and Southern Universities Purchasing Consortium (SUPC).

The group want “immediate action by publishers and aggregators to introduce more sustainable and affordable pricing models for e-books and e-textbooks”.

Offering online access to learning materials was a “priority” for universities during the lockdown, a need likely to become more acute as providers adopt a “blended learning and teaching” approach, the group wrote.

E-books and e-textbooks are “central to learning and teaching”, the letter adds – and universities have the “expectation” that students should be able to borrow titles “without them having to purchase their own copies.”

The librarian associations and purchasing consortia pledged to “work collectively to negotiate better terms” with publishers and help lecturers “signpost affordable alternatives”.

A paper published this month by SCONUL sets out the reasons why university librarians seek action. It explains that e-books and e-textbooks are increasingly “being migrated by publishers from standard purchasing models to premium models” that “are increasingly unaffordable for libraries”.

Some titles are “bundled” into expensive packages, forcing universities to buy costly access to a swathe of unrequired materials. The paper also warns that some publishers hike annual subscription rates on materials universities subscribe to regularly. The SCONUL paper says premium pricing models should be used sparingly and “never exclud[e] libraries”.

It warned that students were increasingly at risk of losing access to critical learning resources. In a veiled threat to publishers pursuing these policies, the SCONUL paper noted, “there is limited new money in the system” and that universities would soon force librarians to seek other providers.

The group wants libraries to be able to “purchase and loan all types of books, including e-books and e-textbooks”, to share them across libraries “selectively” and make use of “existing copyright regulations”. It also seeks transparent pricing and subscription policies.

It’s time for all parties to re-prioritise the needs of students and library users in this marketplace
– Nicholas Lewis, University of East Anglia

Libby Homer, chair of SCONUL content strategy group, said: “This is a call for simplicity, transparency, fairness and accessibility. As it stands, the marketplace is skewed against not just libraries, but users from universities to public libraries and NHS Trusts.”

Nicholas Lewis, library director at the University of East Anglia and lead author of the SCONUL paper, said: “It’s time for all parties to re-prioritise the needs of students and library users in this marketplace and come up with far more sustainable solutions for the future.”

Last year, SCONUL, Jisc and RLUK warned publishers that universities would cancel deals if they don’t reduce their prices. Jisc, the provider of network and IT services to the higher education sector, said a growing number of members are complaining about a lack of price transparency from publishers, particularly annual hosting fees that inexplicably escalate annually.

A freedom of information (FOI) request revealed that UK universities spent more than £112m on journal subscriptions in 2019.


Read more: Shelf life: the wonder of university libraries

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