Cutting Costs and Quality?

U. of Colorado at Boulder cuts costs by subscribing to an ebook service over buying print books, but some faculty members complain of an inferior product.

September 2, 2014

An institution’s decision to drop print books for ebooks may rankle traditionalists, but at the University Colorado at Boulder, it’s the open-to-innovation crowd that is speaking out.

CU-Boulder is one of many institutions that have moved away from stocking print books to signing ebook subscription deals with publishers. Such deals often come with a score of benefits beyond cost savings. For example, new books automatically appear in the library at regular intervals, often packaged with tools to speed up the discovery and research processes. The shift from print to digital also frees up room previously devoted to stacks, giving the library room to add more collaborative space, 3D printers and whatever other amenities 21st-century library-goers desire.

Ebooks may also be more accessible than print copies, but that’s not always the case. As part of the licensing agreements libraries sign, publishers often place restrictions on how many users can read the ebook at the same time, how long they can read it and how many pages they can print. Such agreements have been widely criticized by library groups.

Last year, CU-Boulder subscribed to Oxford Scholarship Online, or OSO, a digital research library with more than 10,000 titles offered by Oxford University Press. The announcement came bundled with news that the university would no longer purchase print books from the publisher “except by special request.”

The arrangement initially didn’t bother faculty members such as Robert Pasnau, professor of philosophy, who said in a blog post that he is “no Luddite,” and that he prefers to read texts on screen. But compared to the quality he said expects from the publisher, Pasnau found the digital versions “execrable.”

Books viewed online retain many of the formatting flourishes found in the print versions -- as well as additional sharing and citation exporting features obviously not found in print -- but when a researcher downloads a PDF file to read elsewhere, the platform produces a stripped down mobile- and printer-friendly version (a comparison can be seen at the bottom of this article).

In the two cases Pasnau documented on his blog, the printer-friendly versions of an article and a book featured font and formatting changes and confusing layouts. Those deficiencies wouldn’t have mattered as much if researchers primarily used the print books, Pasnau said in an email, but when a university makes the digital versions the only means to access the research, “the stakes rise enormously.”

“There was a time when Oxford University Press cared deeply about the art of printing, maintained high standards of typesetting, and took pride in decisions about fonts and other aesthetic niceties,” Pasnau wrote in the email. “How is it, then, that one of the world’s great publishing houses can now care so little about all that as to give us something as wretched as what we see here from OSO?”

Pasnau compared his experiences with Oxford Scholarship Online to the rise of the digital music industry, and particularly the popularity of low-quality file formats.

“Think of how obsessed people once were with high fidelity,” he wrote in the email. “Now it turns out crummy little MP3 files, through crummy little earbuds, is perfectly good for the vast majority of people. Similar issues arise here. Presses used to pride themselves on the beauty of their books. But maybe it turns out that doesn't matter so much at all?”

Jennifer E. Knievel, director of arts and humanities at CU-Boulder, said Pasnau isn't the only faculty member who has complained about the quality of the OSO texts. As a result the library has had to purchase a "handful" of the books in print. Compared to buying the books individually, however, OSO offers "considerable cost savings per book."

"With OSO we have access to more titles than we would without it, since our budgets aren't so robust that we can buy every title on the market," Knievel said in an email. "If the readability and usability of the OSO versions were on par with the standalone ebook versions, I think scholars would be very happy with the product."

Pasnau’s blog has so far attracted over 20 comments, including one from Peter Momtchiloff, the publisher’s senior commissioning editor for philosophy.

Momtchiloff agreed that the platform is not a perfect product, but said the website is “constantly evolving” in response to feedback such as Pasnau’s post. Some of the specific points Pasnau mentioned -- such as the confusing footnote and endnote layout -- should be fixed as early as next week, he wrote.

Perhaps most importantly, Momtchiloff said the publisher is revamping how it generates PDF files from its titles, which could potentially produce files that more closely resemble the source.

Despite Momtchiloff’s response, Pasnau said he wasn’t convinced the publisher will make the platform more useful for researchers.

“They'll presumably fix the worst of the problems I pointed out, but this basic procedural problem remains,” Pasnau wrote in the email. “It simply takes a great deal of hard work to change the format of a book so radically and then expect it to be displayed properly. It's like going through a whole second production process.”

Christian Purdy, director of publicity for the publisher's U.S. operations, declined to comment, referring to Momtchiloff's response. Momtchiloff did not respond to a request for comment.

“Is OSO evil? No. It’s an excellent resource,” Momtchiloff wrote. “Is OSO deliberately flawed in order to undermine the move from print to online? No: the need for effective online publication of academic research is inescapable, and is something which OUP has embraced, having been a leading player in online publishing innovation for many years.”

He added, “At the same time, print sales are proving pleasingly resilient and we expect print and online formats to continue flourishing side by side. Not everyone will have access to both, and librarians will have difficult decisions to make. But we are offering them good options.”

Below: A comparison between a print book (left) and a printer-friendly version produced by OSO (right).

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