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The cost of digital academic texts and content needs reviewing

If anyone has ever stumbled across the price of academic books, you will likely be shocked by the price displayed. A campaign has launched to investigate costs, with an open letter to Education Committee MPs. It has been organised by Johanna Anderson of the University of Gloucestershire and Rachel Bickley from London Metropolitan University, with over 2,500 UK university staff signing so far.

At Warwick we are lucky to be able access almost anything we wish and have a great team of Academic Support Librarians behind the scenes. But, with the move to more online delivery possibly necessitating more eBooks, one must wonder if we are being taken for a ride.

Having a hardcopy as a tenth of the price means something has gone horribly wrong

The prices of physical and electronic academic books can be horror-inducing. What is worse is when the eBook licenses are priced at more than multiple physical copies. I had first-hand experience with these problems when I requested the library purchase a book last year. It was £20 on Amazon, yet I was told they must purchase through specific channels, and it would cost about £100 and take weeks to arrive.

Then there is the matter of eBooks: the campaign cites an example of a physical book costing £44, a single-access eBook £423, and £500 for only three users. The small cabal of online academic publishers have essentially become a profiteering cartel. Having a hardcopy as a tenth of the price means something has gone horribly wrong. The convenience of eBooks does not justify this difference.

This also raises the problem of licenses – one eBook copy is never enough and three is hardly any better, especially for books named as recommended or essential reading. Even for some obscure books, the library has multiple hardcopies. Having only a handful of eBook versions available for use at a time for a higher cost is awful. Single user eBooks, when priced well above that of a hard copy, are a disgrace and just leech off taxpayer’s money and punish libraries.

Libraries are the main buyers and so it feels like university libraries are being exploited

The response is often that digital licenses grant perpetual access and eBooks outlast physical copies. Not only can licenses be revoked, as the campaign notes, but physical books can and have lasted centuries, and with modern printing technology should last even longer. Either form can be loaned hundreds of times in their lifespan, so to claim there is a loss of profit from eBooks is unjustified. Libraries do not have to pay to keep their current stock of physical books, so there is no justification for paying £1000 to only get access to a book for a year.

When a university buys an eBook, they will likely buy physical copies too. Students can understand why they cannot get a physical copy out if they are on loan, yet to say an eBook is unavailable sounds farcical. It is disingenuous for publishers to claim they are trying to get fair returns for authors. One method is to pay the author a lump sum and then the publisher pockets any extra returns – generally only a well-established popular scholar will receive much in the way of royalties. If you are unlucky, your book gets put on print to order, the graveyard for books.

Arguably academic texts require higher prices as they are often niche and do not sell much. However, libraries are the main buyers and so it feels like university libraries are being exploited. Extortionate costs for online access to newspaper archives, collections like GALE, and eBook licenses require a critical rethink.

Students tend not to buy academic books – who can blame them? There was one academic book I wanted called Inventing International Society: A History of the English School, an International Relations theory book I love. It costs £55 paperback, over £120 hardback, £44 for a singular eBook, or if you wish about £20 per chapter. What student can afford that, and what library can continue to on a larger scale? 

I will let you ponder how much you would have spent on eBooks and books in your time at university so far if you paid for everything you read, maybe the £9,250 becomes small in comparison. All because publishers are taking students, academics, and authors for a ride. We should count ourselves lucky our university has as great a library service as it does.

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