Open Access Working Group

Research Under Pressure: Impact of Covid-19 Through A Librarian’s Eyes

Posted: 17-07-2020 Topics: Copyright Open Access

Covid-19 has left research libraries scrambling to support a swift and unprecedented switch to digital teaching. The transition to fully online learning has exacerbated existing problems, namely a lack of appropriate copyright legislation (as LIBER flagged in April), and sky-high prices for digital textbooks. 

To highlight the problems faced by librarians, LIBER’s Copyright & Legal Matters Working Group interviewed Johanna Anderson, an academic librarian for natural and social sciences in the United Kingdom.

What issues have you faced in recent months?

In terms of ebook provision, I’ve been frustrated for a long time with ebook business models. You have to search across so many different systems and licenses. Costs are prohibitive.

University management, and some academics, think everything is available online but it’s not. Far from it.

Our collection matches up with the bigger picture across the sector, which means that only about 10% of books are available online (see SCONUL study) and a big proportion of those only have single-user licences.

That’s okay if they’re a reasonable price (on par with the cost of a hardcopy book) but if they cost several hundred pounds each, we can’t do that. We can’t buy them even if they’re available.

So even before Covid-19, you were struggling to get the material requested by library users?

Already, before the corona virus kicked off, we were spending hours searching for the best ebooks we could find. Students generally prefer physical books but if we had ebooks available and if it meant getting an ebook right away or waiting for the paper copy to be returned, the ebooks were heavily used.

At the end of last year, I was researching which books to buy for the next term. Then, after Christmas, Taylor & Francis and Routledge upped their ebook prices to levels of £480 and upwards for a single-user licence. It was at least a three or four-fold increase.

Some ebook publishers started introducing expiry dates as well, so you can use the ebook for a certain amount of time and then you have to buy a new licence, which is ludicrous. No library buys a hard-copy book and lets the publishers walk in and take it away after a period of time but that’s happening with ebooks.

And then corona virus took hold. What happened next?

When the lockdown happened, I thought the publishers would have to do something because this situation simply wasn’t acceptable. Taylor & Francis and Routledge came out with a big press release about upgrading single-user licenses to unlimited user licenses for the duration of the lockdown.

The fanfare that’s come out from publishers like Taylor & Francis sounds good on paper. They’re giving us access to unlimited licences. But what it never says in those press releases is that the costs are so high, we still can’t buy the material. I don’t have hundreds of pounds to spend on an ebook which is only available to all of my students for a couple of months, and after that we’re back to a single-user ebook. But at the moment, I also don’t have the alternative of getting the hard copy and scanning chapters because the library is closed.

What has that meant in practical terms?

I’m spending hours and hours and hours trying to find resources for students doing assignments. There’s an example of a text book that we need for a take-home exam. The students need access to chapters of books that we have in the library but we can’t scan them because the campus is closed. The ebook is 750 pounds for a single-user licence and I have 60 students trying to access the book to do a time-based assignment at home. My blood boils! So I’m scrambling around trying to find alternatives.

One academic has this book at home and he’s photographing the pages and sending them to me so that we can make it electronically available. When we get to the library, we’ll scan the book so we can comply with the legal regulations. It’s absurd. The content is there in electronic format! For a course starting in September, five of the texts are Routledge texts on the reading lists. I’ve had to say to the academics that we can’t supply those titles so they need to make new reading lists.

How will this affect you in the medium to long term, given that online learning is becoming the new norm?

At our university, we’re taking a blended approach. Much of our teaching will take place online where possible for the foreseeable future. Nobody really knows what will happen, and the corona virus could peak again over the winter, so I’m just trying to plan ahead and buy electronic resources where possible.

With ebooks, I’m trying to get the academics to edit their reading lists. Just this week I’ve asked a couple academics to take books off their reading lists, even though they’re key texts. What can you do? I have been trying to stress to academics how difficult the ebook market is for a long time but this situation has really laid it bare and they are starting to really get it. They are getting very frustrated as well and are becoming more and more willing to boycott certain publishers where necessary and to think very carefully where they themselves will publish in the future. They put all of that hard work into writing a book only for it to be unavailable to their own institutions to purchase, what is the point if people, including their own students, can’t read it?

Have the publishers offered any solutions?

I raised these complaints months ago with publishers and industry bodies and even this extraordinary situation has not made publishers change their business model. If a global pandemic doesn’t make them change their practice, what will? Regulation. I think regulation is the only thing that will impact on them. We, as librarians, don’t have that agency on our own.

A lot of epublishers have tried to monopolize the market by telling our academics that they’ll provide packages for their modules for a certain cost, which seems quite simple and appealing but then you get reading lists populated by the same publishers.

My ethics align with much of the IFLA Code of Ethics, specifically passages which note that librarians and other information workers:

  • aim to provide fair, swift, economical and effective access to information for users;
  • negotiate the most favourable terms for access to works on behalf of their users and seek to ensure that access is not unnecessarily prevented or hindered by the mode of administration of intellectual property laws and that licenses do not override exceptions for libraries contained in national legislation;
  • Operate with the main interest of providing the best possible access for library users to information and ideas in any media or format.

You need a wide variety of content so students can learn to synthesis information and form their own opinions. They need to look at many resources, not stuff which has been handed to them on a plate by a publisher because that takes independence and critical thought out of education. That’s not a solution for us. It’s similar when publishers say to the library, “you can get our content for less if you subscribe to our ebook platform”. But there are multiple ebook providers and I already have to search five different vendor platforms to look at licenses for ebooks. I don’t want to search even more platforms. We don’t do that for hardcopy textbooks. We just buy the hardcopy that we need.

Also, we don’t want to subscribe to the entire Taylor & Francis ebook title list because we want to be able to pick the key texts that our students need and then have enough finance left to get supplementary reading. Publishers are trying to replicate journal package provision wherein you pay a lot of money for a few key journal titles you want while the rest of the package is useless dross. This is absolutely not how we should manage book stock.

The situation is ludicrous. It makes no sense. We can’t afford it.

If you had a magic wand, what would your ideal solution be?

I’d like to see a complete overhaul of textbook business models, and I think that’s only going to happen if there is a competition commission investigation or input from the government and a body overseeing ebook publishing charges.

I think that academic publishing needs to be broken up. There are a couple key players which are too big so I’d like them to be disbanded in some way. Open Access should be truly Open Access, rather than charging authors an awful lot of money to publish their content.

I’m an idealist and as a librarian I think information should be available to everybody. It’s appalling that a lot of research isn’t available to the general public. If I could wave my wand, I’d make any research funded by public money freely available to the public and students.

IFLA’s Code of Conduct makes it clear that access to information is a fundamental human right and states:

The emphasis on information rights in turn obliges librarians and other information workers to develop a principled critique of relevant law and to be prepared to advise and, if appropriate, advocate the improvement of both the substance and administration of laws.

I feel we are failing in this regard.

What’s your next step in the fight for change?

I’ll keep shouting about this on Twitter. Industry advocates aren’t dealing with it quickly enough and I have no other clout otherwise. I have people telling me how brave I am for saying this stuff but it shouldn’t be that way.

Publishers have a lot of money and have been shown to be litigious in order to protect their profit margins. I know my twitter feed is monitored and I know academic librarians who are vocal have also experienced their twitter feeds being monitored, and that publishers and vendors have phoned their bosses. Openly challenging the status quo can be very intimidating.  But if we cannot argue for change now. then when?

In the contracts that universities sign, it’s also often written that you shouldn’t talk about prices because it’s business-sensitive information. Universities often don’t have the resources to pay legal minds to analyse all of their contracts and libraries don’t have the clout to negotiate. We have a little negotiating room but not much. But I’ve gotten to the point where I think, well, what else can I do beyond being vocal about it, I feel it is my professional duty to do so, for my students and for the broader public good The gross commodification of information has got to the point where it is making it impossible for us to do our jobs

Thank you Johanna for this interview. Want to tell us your story? Email the LIBER Office. And please share our statement calling for urgent copyright change to support distance learning and research.