Essay on problems that the economic model of e-books poses for college libraries and scholars

According to academic libraries, there’s a just-over-the-horizon golden age in which “you always have whatever scholarship you need access to, at any time and wherever you are.” This quote comes from my library’s “welcome” page, but it could as easily come from many American university libraries.

Having e-books supersede and replace physical books is essential to the vision. Accordingly, libraries have made great advances in digitizing their paper book collections and making them available online through Google Books, HathiTrust and other digitized collections. These superb collections make the vision seem possible, enticing and even closer than we might imagine. Many university libraries have taken another step toward its realization by instituting policies that either prefer or require new book acquisitions to be in digital rather than paper format, when available.

But there is a fundamental difference between digitized versions of physical books and born-digital books. While the former move us closer to the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” future, the economics of the latter are pushing us in the opposite direction, toward a future in which access to digitally published titles is restricted and provisional. 

This difference becomes apparent when we consider interlibrary loan. I regularly explain to patrons that they cannot use an e-book licensed by another University of California campus and that their best option is to request a paper copy by interlibrary loan. In one recent case a patron wanted a book that had been published only online and only as part of a package. Since subscribers to the package were prohibited from sharing any of its contents via interlibrary loan, there were only two options for the patron: either she had to read it while physically situated at a subscribing library, or my library would have had to pay many thousands of dollars to license the package. 

To understand what is happening, it is first necessary to understand that digitizing projects like Google Books and HathiTrust are possible because libraries own the physical books they contain and because they choose to exercise the option to make them available in this fashion. The key point is ownership. Acquisition of a physical book brings with it a consistent and well understood set of rights and restrictions that have been clearly defined and relatively stable for more than a century. 

Collectively we refer to these rights as conferring ownership. The principle that the sale of a book extinguished the right of the seller to control the subsequent disposition of a book was established by the United States Supreme Court back in 1908 in Bobbs-Merrill Co. v. Straus and reaffirmed only last year in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Known as the first-sale doctrine, this principle underpins fundamental practices of a research library. It means that libraries can do pretty much what they wish with their books as long as those actions do not violate copyright (or other) law -- such venerable library practices as lending books to whomever they choose and for however long they wish, sharing them through interlibrary loan and selling or giving them away derive from the first-sale doctrine.

First-sale doctrine also provides the legal basis for such innovative practices as digitizing books; if the digitized books are in the public domain, then libraries can make them freely available, as they do with the full-view titles in HathiTrust. Copyright law and court decisions also permit digitization of in-copyright books for such transformative uses as full-text searching (you can find out if a term is used in a book, and how often, even if you can’t see it online) and data mining of digitized collections to discover patterns of thought and word use. One of the most exciting uses of digitized in-copyright titles is to provide print-impaired readers with full-text, screen-readable access to a body of literature orders of magnitude greater than previously available. 

Born-digital e-books are very different animals than digitized e-books, even though they may appear similar on the screen. Where digitized e-books are owned by libraries, born-digital e-books are almost always only licensed from either the publisher or a third-party vendor, not purchased outright. The distinction between owning and licensing means, among other things, that the digital file is located on the seller’s server and not on one owned or controlled by the library. Additionally, the bundle of rights associated with ownership of a physical book is not transferred intact when a library merely pays for access. 

E-book licenses vary widely. At one end are subscription packages with low per-title prices and few rights; a library’s patrons can access a subscription title only as long as it pays an annual subscription fee, effectively renting the books like you rent a car. Libraries’ ability to share titles acquired this way is extremely limited.   

At the other end are licenses that ensure the library’s access to the title “in perpetuity,” for a one-time fee, permitting the library to engage in many of the practices associated with owned books. Most limited perpetual access e-books licensed by libraries (in contrast with inexpensive personal copies) generally cost about the same as a physical book, but add on rights and users and prices quickly escalate by three and five times. (The per-title cost drops if book packages are licensed, but bulk acquisition has problems of its own, and in my opinion should be avoided.)

I am aware of a single major vendor that permits the purchase of an e-book allowing a library to download and maintain a copy of the title on its own hardware, but the rights that accompany a title purchased this way are still far more limited than those associated with a purchased book. For example, it would be a violation of the purchase agreement to send one of these books out on interlibrary loan; only a single chapter can be shared per request. 

In addition, the fact that titles are licensed enables the owner to engage in practices that libraries traditionally reject. Foremost among them is gathering data about readers. For libraries, protection of reader privacy is a core value, and they routinely break the connection between borrower and book as soon as the book has been returned. 

Vendors, on the other hand, can monitor and record individual patrons’ book choices. They can even assert control over readers’ behavior. Once, when I was skimming an e-book, a “Browse Warning!” appeared, asserting that I was either illegally copying pages or “navigating the book in an inappropriate manner.” Were I to continue my inappropriate navigation, the vendor warned, it might not only cut me off from this book, but from all its books. I never skimmed one of the vendor’s titles again.

Finally, there is a separate problem associated with the practice of licensing, not purchasing e-books. The perpetual access model assumes that the publisher or vendor of the title is a stable, financially secure corporation that possesses the expertise to write -- or at least vet -- complex legal instruments and has invested in whatever backup mechanisms are needed to provide satisfactory assurances of access, perpetual or otherwise. However, there are ever-increasing numbers and varieties of small, individual and ephemeral publishing outlets that lack the resources to meet library standards. Consequently libraries are simply unable to acquire the e-books produced by a growing segment of the publishing industry.

For all these reasons, born-digital e-books pose significant challenges to libraries’ abilities to operate effectively, protect their patrons and meet their needs, and acquire the books they need at a reasonable cost. If libraries are to continue to provide the unique services they offer, if they are to realize the “anyone, anytime, anywhere” vision, and if they are to support the future use of their holdings in ways we cannot yet imagine, they need to own, not merely license books. And e-book ownership needs to be more closely equivalent to ownership of a physical book than is currently the case.

In short, we need to renegotiate the way libraries operate in the e-book marketplace so that they can fulfill their unique and irreplaceable functions while also ensuring that publishers and authors receive their due. It will be expensive, if we can ever get there. Books will cost more and libraries will have to develop the infrastructure needed to host, preserve and deliver the books they acquire. Fortunately, we do not have to start from scratch. We have some existing, if imperfect, purchase models on which to build. It will take time, and the golden age may be farther off and not as perfect as we had hoped. In the meantime, libraries should ease off on their preference for licensing e-books instead of buying physical ones.

Daniel Goldstein is an arts, humanities and social sciences librarian at the University of California at Davis.

Editorial Tags: 

Swets bankruptcy will cost libraries time, money

Smart Title: 

A global subscription company that served as intermediary between college libraries and journal publishers has declared bankruptcy. Libraries face financial losses and time-consuming process to assure journal access.

Wake Forest U. creates room for napping in campus library

Smart Title: 

Wake Forest University encourages students to de-stress by taking quick naps in its library. It's one of many ways colleges are trying to reduce the anxiety felt by their students.

Publishers call for federal government to settle 'fair use' in higher education

Smart Title: 

At a U.S. House hearing, representatives for publishers and colleges argue over whether federal government should get involved in determining how institutions can use copyrighted works.



Adobe patches ereader vulnerability, but privacy concerns remain

Smart Title: 

Adobe patches a security vulnerability in its ereader software, but some users still regard the data Digital Editions collects about them with suspicion.

At research library conference, speakers push for advocacy

Smart Title: 

Research libraries should step up their advocacy efforts and pressure government agencies to overhaul their outdated record-keeping practices, speakers at library conference argue.

New JSTOR online magazine seeks to expand access to archives

Smart Title: 

New daily online magazine from the digital archive seeks to be "where news meets its scholarly match."

Wesleyan U. fires university librarian after disagreement with provost

Smart Title: 

After long-running disagreements about how to run its library, Wesleyan U. fires its university librarian.

Article on open access in library and information science scholarship

“This might be too geeky for a column,” said the subject line of a reader's email, “but just in case …”

It sounded like a challenge, and I took the bait. The topic in question? A new statistical instrument to quantify the degree of open access for scholarly journals. In other words, exactly geeky enough.

The metric can, in principle,  be used with journals in any field. At this stage, though, it’s only really being talked about in library and information science (LIS) circles. It represents a challenge to academic librarians to “walk the talk” in regard to their own professional publications. But it's an “inside baseball” discussion that merits attention outside the dugout, given the role of academic librarians in shaping the whole terrain of 21st-century scholarly communication.

That role is crucial but often overlooked. Academic librarians still have the core responsibilities of managing acquisitions and maintaining subscriptions, of course, but must also keep track of the new array (constantly growing, across all disciplines) of digital-format archives, databases, and other repositories. Plus they have the pedagogical task of instructing patrons in how to use new research tools as they become available.

As if that weren’t enough to do, research libraries have been mutating into scholarly publishers in their own right, sometimes in cooperation with their universities’ presses. To borrow a phrase from a recent paper in the journal College & Research Libraries, academic librarians have gone beyond being “gatekeepers of knowledge” -- in charge of its storage and retrieval -- to playing an active role in its promulgation.

Cassidy R. Sugimoto and the other seven authors of “Beyond Gatekeepers of Knowledge: Scholarly Communication Practices of Academic Librarians and Archivists at ARL Institutions” are all in the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University at Bloomington. The abbreviation in their subtitle refers to to the Association of Research Libraries, which has 125 affiliated institutions in North America.

Sugimoto et al. sent a survey to their colleagues at 91 academic libraries in the U.S. about how they kept track of developments within library and information science itself. Just over six hundred people filled out all or most of the questionnaire.

The findings reveal a profession that's seriously interested in its own rapidly changing role in scholarly communications: "A vast majority (94.2 percent) consult professional literature" -- defined to include scholarly journals as well as less formal venues such as trade publications and blogs — "on, at the very least, a monthly basis.” More than a quarter of respondents said they did so daily.

Over 80 percent of respondents indicated they followed peer-reviewed LIS journals. More three-quarters kept up with conference papers and proceedings in their field. "Nearly three-quarters," the paper notes, "reported sharing the results of research or reports of best practices" with their colleagues, with more than half (54.2 percent) doing so in peer-reviewed journals."

The other, more granular statistics in the paper are significant, but I want to stress a couple of important big-picture issues suggested by the study. On the one hand, the Indiana researchers describe a kind of virtuous circle. Academic librarians are eager both to produce and to exchange knowledge about their field -- not just to publish but to read one another’s work and to incorporate it into their own activity. (And that is a good thing for the rest of us, prone though we are to taking their efforts for granted.)

The paper also stresses that academic librarians have been advocates for "new (particularly open) systems of scholarly communication." They have shown prescient and growing support for open-access publishing for a number of years now. But here's where things become problematic, because it sounds like the library and information studies people could use some "new (particularly open) systems of scholarly communication” of their own.

Librarians who are also tenure-track faculty need to publish in the field's major peer-reviewed journals. (Forty percent of respondents to the Indiana researchers’ survey were either tenured or on the track.)

But with a prestigious journal, the lag time between between acceptance and publication can run to a year or more. That delay "impede[s] the timeliness and back-and-forth exchanges that are required for effective scholarly communication." And in "technology-related fields ... research may lose its currency if it is not delivered expediently."

Then there is the conundrum assessed in another recent study, Micah Vandergrift and Chealsye Bowley's "Librarian Heal Thyself: A Scholarly Communication Analysis of LIS Journals,” published last month by In the Library With a Lead Pipe, which is probably the best name ever for a peer-reviewed journal. (Vandergrift is a scholarly communications librarian at Florida State University. Bowley is library supervisor at FSU's Florence Study Center in Italy.)

While academic librarians have been strong advocates of open-access publishing, many LIS researchers seem to exempt their own field. One study the authors cite found that half of respondents “cared mostly about publication without considering the policies of the journals in which they published and that only 16 percent had exercised the right to self-archive in the institutional archive.”

Vandegrift and Bowley assembled data on the policies of 111 library and information science journals and found that with a large minority of them (well over a third) the author signs over all copyrights to the publisher — “including but not limited,” as the contracts run, "to the right to publish, republish, transmit, sell, distribute, and otherwise use the [article] in whole or in part … in derivative works throughout the world, in all languages, and in all media of expression now known or later developed.” (You could probably get away with giving the PDF to a close friend, just be very, very quiet about it.)

Just a handful of journals “had direct or implied policies regarding what the author is allowed to do with specific versions of the same work,” including self-archiving in an institutional repository. “A significant percentage of our professional literature,” Vandegrift and Bowley conclude, "is still owned and controlled by commercial publishers whose role in scholarly communication is to maintain ’the scholarly record,’ yes, but also to generate profits at the expense of library budgets by selling our intellectual property back to us.”

A norm doesn’t remain a norm unless nearly everyone involved acquiesces to it. A couple of years ago The Economist referred to the signs of growing unhappiness with the state of scholarly publishing as "The Academic Spring," and Vandegraft and Bowley's paper is part of it.

"A great example of a proactive and outspoken group,” Bowley told me in an email exchange, "was the Journal of Library Administration's Editor-in-Chief Damon Jaggars and entire editorial board who resigned in March 2013 … [over] an author agreement that they thought was "too restrictive and out of step with the expectation of authors.” Vandegrift was among the authors who had requested a Creative Commons license or to retain their copyright — an open-access policy that Taylor & Francis, the journal’s publisher, rejected.

Continuing the effort to bring the publishing practices of LIS researchers into accord with its ethos, Vandegrift and Bowled have created an instrument called the Journal Openness Index. It uses a points system for the various degrees of control over copyright and reuse indicated in a journal’s stated policies. The higher the JOI, the more open-access the publication. Crunching the numbers for several leading LIS titles, the authors find that the journals of professional societies get the highest scores while those from commercial-academic publishers get the lowest, with journals issued by university presses falling somewhere in between.

That is not exactly counterintuitive. But Vandegrift and Bowley offer JOI as a step in the direction of establishing open access as one of the criteria for how colleagues assess the value of scholarship in their own field.

"I imagine all the students that come out of library schools,” Vandegraft said by email, who "go into public librarianship and all of a sudden are cut off from access to the literature that can and should inform the practice of their work, which they were trained to do in library schools where ‘access' is touted as a value. I think we can do better, and I think it will take articles like this one to push librarians to be more proactive and to ask our faculty colleagues to join us."

As for applying JOI to journals in other fields, the idea is feasible but demanding. “Such a project would need proper backing,“ Bowley told me, "whether in the form of a team or institutional and financial support, in order to ensure its long-term upkeep. It could also be partially done through crowdsourcing the information, though. If a professional organization or institution is interested in taking up the project, they would certainly be welcomed to do so.”

I hope their colleagues take them up on it. An informed librarian is a helpful librarian — and it’s a fool who underestimates the value of that.

Editorial Tags: 

Survey of university libraries finds diversity developing by institutional type

Smart Title: 

With the transition to electronic resources "nearly completed," university libraries turn their attention to student support, a new survey finds.


Subscribe to RSS - Libraries
Back to Top