A Bold Call for an Investigation into the Academic e-book Publishing Industry – Part 1

#ebooksos campaign

In a new series of interviews with librarians, copyright experts, and colleagues in the wider field of advocacy for equitable access to knowledge, Knowledge Rights 21 explores the library landscape, focussing here on academic and public libraries’ constant struggle with ebooks, restrictive licensing, technological protection measures that undermine copyright exceptions, and the extremely high cost of digital lending.

Three UK academic librarians, Caroline Ball, University of Derby, Rachel Bickley, London Metropolitan University and Yohanna Anderson, University of Gloucestershire, co-founded the now internationally renowned #ebooksos campaign some 18 months ago. Knowledge Rights 21 recently spoke with them about their experience starting this grassroots initiative, the obstacles they encountered, and the support they’ve been getting so far.

KR21: What was the library climate like around the start of the campaign?

Rachel: “It was the summer of 2020. We were becoming increasingly frustrated with academic ebook provision to university libraries. The lack of availability of key titles, restrictive licences and astronomical pricing were not new issues, but had been brought sharply into focus by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the national lockdown forced university libraries in the UK to close their physical collections. Our students were relying on ebooks and other online resources to finish their degrees, but in many cases, we just couldn’t provide the texts in digital format.”

#ebooksos in one minute!
Image from #ebooksos in one minute!

KR21: How did you get inspired to start the #ebooksos campaign?

An open call from Yohanna prompted Caroline and Rachel to help write a letter to the Universities Minister, to request an investigation by the Education Committee, into the academic ebook publishing industry.

Rachel: “Our open letter was released to the library and Higher Education (HE) community via Twitter on a Friday afternoon in September 2020, and attracted over 250 signatures by Sunday. Within one week it had over 1000 signatures.”

The campaign gained a huge amount of support and even media attention from the BBC and The Guardian newspaper. This rapidly swelling momentum highlighted the urgency of the issue and supported a resolve not to be deterred from further action.

KR21: What sort of activities have you been working on since the campaign began?

Caroline: “Awareness-raising has been the main one. We want academics, students and the wider public as well, to be aware of the issue. Librarians have been struggling with this for a long time behind closed doors. Most people are not aware that libraries pay such huge prices for ebooks or that they are so restricted by licences. Or even that not everything is even available as an ebook.”

The campaign has been presenting at conferences, getting the word out in news media, and in library and research publications. They even produced a short video that went viral on Twitter and a guide for librarians to share with academics about what to look for in publishing contracts, questions to ask regarding ebooks.

Within the library community, #ebooksos has been meeting with representatives from sector bodies and consortia to agree a coordinated approach, and get them to support the campaign. They also made a formal complaint to the Competition and Markets Authority about the practice of the academic publishing industry, and liaised with one of their directors, providing information, data etc. There’s internal debate about an investigation, so there’s hope.

#ebooksos in one minute!
Image from #ebooksos in one minute!

KR21: What are your plans for 2022?

Caroline: “We are hoping that the Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will make a decision in the first quarter of this year.  So our activities for the rest of the year will depend on what that decision is.”

Rachel: “In 2021, it felt like the awareness raising and some of the other activities that we were doing were inspiring activities within HE libraries. Some were looking again at their collection development policies to ensure they reflect the issues of ethics and sustainability that are tied up in how and what we purchase. At my institution we have created our own version of the “can my students read my books?” a guide for our own academic staff. It will be interesting to see the results of these efforts during the course of this year. And to hopefully see more of this kind of activity!”

What does success look like?

Caroline: “Short term would be the CMA launching an investigation into the academic publishing market. That would be a huge thing for the campaign and the sector. They have the authority and the clout to really make a difference not just in academic publishing but across the board.

Longer term I think we need to push for copyright reform. The existing legislation in the UK is not fit for purpose and needs a major overhaul. We would love to see a provision for controlled digital lending, for example. There also needs to be some provision for a requirement for public libraries. They deal with the same issues, often with a smaller budget.”

Rachel: “I agree. Even though the campaign initially started as a request for an inquiry into academic ebook publishing for UK universities, I think that as the campaign has progressed and developed. It’s become very apparent that this is just one aspect of the wider issue around fair and equitable access to information, not just in HE, but in general.”

And that’s just what the #ebooksos campaign is going for. Thank you Rachel, Caroline and Yohanna for your ongoing, incredible efforts.

Contact the campaign at https://academicebookinvestigation.org/have-you-got-questions-or-suggestions-for-us/ or look for #ebooksos on social media.

Come back for part II of the interview for more insight on what the trio of library advocates have learned from their experiences and how their campaign has inspired the initiation of similar efforts in other countries.

10 March 2022