Thursday, 9 July 2020

Challenges in providing access to required readings in the Covid-19 era


Covid-19 has brought both challenges and opportunities to the delivery of reading list material.  We are delighted that the number of module leaders making use of the Reading List service has greatly increased and we already have reading lists for over 700 modules for the 2020/21 academic year.  We greatly appreciate all the academic staff who have engaged with the service, you are helping us to ensure your students will have stress-free and seamless access to their readings.  If you have yet to provide us with your Reading Lists for 20/21, you can find out how to do so on our Reading List Service page.

The challenge facing us now are those books that are not available for sale as e-books with institution-wide access, or that are only available at exorbitant costs.  We would like to share some knowledge of this challenge, so that you, our academic colleagues, can understand why it may be necessary to consider recommending different books to your students.

Books that are only available in print
Despite the huge growth in e-books in the last ten years, there are still many books that are not available as e-books, particularly older books or those published by smaller publishers. Pre-Covid-19 the solution to this was to purchase more print copies to ensure every student could get access to the book.  However, public health guidance on print materials means that we are going to have to quarantine every book returned by a student for 72 hours before we can issue it to the next student.  This means that the rapid circulation of material through short loan periods that we normally rely on for large classes is not going to be possible, even if the students are on campus.  We also need to consider those students who won’t be able to come on campus for health or other reasons.

Books available as e-books – but not for sale to Libraries
It can be the case that a particular book is for sale as an e-book in Kindle edition or for direct sale from the publisher to the reader but are not available for sale on an institutional license basis.  In other words, these publishers don’t sell to libraries!  This can cause confusion because you can see the book for sale as an e-book on Amazon, making it hard to understand why the library is saying we can’t get an e-book.  If you are recommending a book like this to your students, you should be aware that the students may have to purchase their own copy.

Books available as e-textbooks – but only at unsustainable prices
Some academic textbook publishers traditionally sell their titles on a ‘direct to reader’ basis. These publishers are now willing to sell institutional licenses for the e-textbook versions of these books, through aggregators such as Kortext, Vitalsource and BibliU.  However, the pricing for these institutional licenses reflects the publishers’ expectation of the loss of potential sales direct to students.  The prices are therefore based on a per student/per year calculation, relative to the number of students in the classes using the textbook. 

We provided a sample list of such textbooks to the aggregators with the student numbers for the modules using those books last year.  The average price per textbook per annum was €13,000.  The library does not have the budget to support recurring annual costs of this level, nor do we consider this to be a sustainable or equitable model of publishing academic texts.  We will therefore not be able to acquire any e-textbooks that are available only on this basis.

What’s the solution?
If a book on your reading list falls into any of the challenging categories above, the Reading List team will get in touch to let you know of the problem and will offer you some potential solutions.

Under the terms of the University’s license with the Irish Copyright Licensing Agency, we can digitise one chapter or up to 10% of a book we hold in print and make this available via the Reading List system. So, if no e-book edition is available, our reading list team will be in touch with you to ask if there’s a particular chapter that we could digitise for you. 

The team will also suggest that you consider alternative books if possible.  Search in the Library Catalogue for Proquest eBook Central (you will need to sign in) and you can browse or search a catalogue of over a million e-books from over 750 publishers and 1,500 imprints.

We would also encourage you to consider using Open Education Resources (OERs) for your modules.  These are openly available at no cost to the library or to your students.  They are also usually adaptable as well as reusable, so you can tweak them to the exact requirements of your course or even merge parts from separate OERs as appropriate to your module.  You can find out more in the Library’s Guide to Open Education Resources.

Publisher pressure - We are keeping a list of all the books we’ve been unable to purchase in e-book format and we are sharing these lists with our contracted e-book provider Proquest.  They will contact and work with the publishers of these books to try to persuade them to make those books available on an institutional license basis.  This process is slow and success is not guaranteed as publishers are often very nervous of perceived loss of income by selling to libraries.  So this route may not offer a solution for the coming Semester, but we hope that bit by bit more publishers will come on board.  If you are an author of an academic text, we would encourage you please to ensure your publisher is making that book available for sale on an institutional license basis and at a reasonable cost.

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