Ebooks for students at the University of Sheffield: challenges and opportunities

In the past year, access to print books in the Library has been very limited due to the pandemic.

Picture of an Ebook on a iPad
Picture of an Ebook on a iPad

The Library has been able to provide access for essential research, but for taught students, the expectation is that all recommended reading should be available online, and this is likely to continue beyond the current pandemic.

Ebooks have of course been around for some time now, but providing access through the Library does pose some challenges.

During 2020, Library staff re-checked reading lists for online versions of books not already available as ebooks.

Around 80% of the titles checked were not available as ebooks. Since August 2020, the Library has been unable to fulfil around 2000 book recommendations, as there is no ebook available, or no acceptable ebook licencing model.

Some titles may not be available as ebooks at all, particularly if they were published some time ago. Other ebooks may be available for individuals to download from the Kindle Store or publisher websites, but are not available for institutions to buy.

Where institutional access is available, access models and licencing can vary considerably. The ideal is to have unlimited ongoing access for a fair price.

However, in some instances, a particular ebook may only be available as part of a wider collection that requires an ongoing annual subscription, usually at a very high cost.

In other instances, the access model is a licence that limits the number of people that can access the ebook at any one time.

Single or three-user licences are particularly common for popular etextbooks, and can cost anything from £200–2000. Some etextbook providers charge annual fees for access, with pricing based on the number of students likely to be using the book, and the annual cost can run into thousands of pounds.

Some publishers have attempted to extend and consolidate such models during the pandemic. 

Many of these business models are unsustainable, and could also be considered unreasonable and questionable. The challenges outlined are all long-standing sector-wide concerns that have been brought into sharper focus during the pandemic, as demonstrated in recent articles from the Guardian and the BBC.

There are however opportunities here for challenging the practices of established textbook publishers, and for the University to reconsider the use of textbooks in teaching and the content, structure and purpose of reading lists.

Many colleagues have been surprised to find that a book they’ve written for their course is not available for the Library to buy as an ebook, and all authors are strongly encouraged to ask their publishers how their ebook will be made available to academic libraries, and the licence terms and costs involved before signing a contract.

You can find a list of questions to ask your publisher and some suggested contract clauses in the guidance for authors (PDF, 159KB) provided by the Campaign to Investigate the Academic Ebook Market.

There is growing interest in open textbooks such as those available from the Open Textbook Library and Libre Texts.

Many of these are discoverable on StarPlus, and the Library Faculty Engagement Team has been actively promoting their use, particularly during the pandemic. Feedback from colleagues in academic departments has in many cases been positive.

On browsing the two websites, I see that numerous available books may be useful to our colleagues across many different departments"

Staff feedback

Geography lecturer

Thank you for bringing it to my attention as I am always keen to provide free resources for my students."

Staff feedback

Management School lecturer

In addition to promoting the use of existing open textbooks, the Library is currently exploring how it could support colleagues who might be interested in producing their own open textbooks.

There are also opportunities here to question how textbooks and reading lists are being used in teaching. For all the reasons outlined earlier in this article, programme and module leaders can’t assume that unrestricted online access to a particular etextbook will be possible.

Are textbooks essential? Is it possible to recommend a range of texts and other resources for students to choose from instead of focussing on one or two textbooks?

Could students be supported to develop the research and critical skills they need to discover reading for themselves, instead of providing lengthy reading lists?

It’s clear that the ongoing shift to online teaching and learning will continue beyond the pandemic, accompanied by the need to provide sustainable access to online libraries and learning materials.

University-wide action on the opportunities outlined will help to deliver this. If you’d like to discuss any of the areas raised in this post, please contact the librarian for your department in the first instance.

Maria Mawson, Faculty librarian for Social Sciences

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