University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal’

From BBC News:

More than 2,500 UK university staff have called for an investigation into the “scandal” of excessive pricing of academic e-books.

“Price rises are common, sudden and appear arbitrary” with some digital books increasing by 200%, they say in a letter to Education Committee MPs.

Organiser Johanna Anderson said some e-texts can cost 10 times print copies, with taxpayers and students the losers.

Publishers say the costs are due to the different formats and shared-use.

But Ms Anderson said the situation had become so financially serious for university libraries that it was time for MPs and competition authorities to hold publishers to account.

She cited the example of an economics book that costs £44 for a print copy but is £423 for a single e-book user and £500 for three users. An employment law book costs £50 for a hard copy, but is £1,600 for three users of the digital version.

In another case, a book on working in childcare is listed at £30 for a hard copy but online costs £1,045 for unlimited access for a year. “There are many, many more examples,” Ms Anderson said.

‘Learning suffers’

Prices have been rising for some time, but the University of Gloucestershire librarian said there were reports of increases during lockdown, when access to libraries and bookshops was restricted and getting course material difficult.

“It’s a scandal. It’s public money,” she said. “Students are shocked when I tell them just how much it costs to get them their texts.

“People just assume we can get books for the prices they see on Amazon and Kindle. It just doesn’t work like that for universities.

“The academic publishing business model is broken, and as you can see from the number of people who have signed the letter we think it is time for an investigation,” she said.

Lectures are increasingly having to be designed around what texts are available and affordable, not what is best for learning, Ms Anderson said.

Buying multiple copies of print books is not the answer and simply not practical in the digital age when so much is moving online, she added.

. . . .

Licensing, copyright, book-buying “middlemen” and a trend for publishers to “bundle up” access to books into one expensive package all play a role in what texts are available and at what cost. “In some cases, it’s like having to buy the whole of Waterstones to get access to a couple of books,” Ms Anderson said.

Librarians, lecturers, researchers and other representatives from almost every university in the UK have attached their names to the letter. It says:

  • A monopoly created by copyright law is the root cause of “these huge pricing differentials” and there is no justification for it
  • Earlier this year at least two well-known academic publishers raised the cost for a single-user e-book by 200% with no warning
  • Licences of e-books are often confusing and frequently restrictive
  • Publishers can withdraw e-book licences previously purchased by universities and enforce new ones.

Link to the rest at BBC News

PG notes The Bookseller had a similar story about librarians being upset at ebook pricing, but it was behind a paywall.

PG suggests that, especially for introductory classes, it’s foolish for colleges and their professors to have students purchase textbooks. A professor or group of professors can get together and select a set of materials that are either not subject to copyright or for which the author can provide permission to copy for academic purposes, have the campus bookstore or a local copy shop create copies and bind them at a low price. Student employees could handle the entire process.

Is Introduction to American Literature going to change from year to year? How about Biology 101? Introduction to Sociology? As PG has mentioned before, once he learned how little these books changed from year to year, he switched to used textbooks on an almost exclusive basis.

It’s a waste of money to have students purchase books from a commercial publisher which adds no or little value to the basics of the course.

At annual meetings of various groups of college professors, a general exchange of materials in digital form could take place. Or whatever association to which everyone belongs could host materials on a website available to its members for download.

Within a year or two, with professors fact-checking and correcting such publications, the academic publishers would withdraw with a huff or two.

2 thoughts on “University staff urge probe into e-book pricing ‘scandal’”

  1. The idea that students would buy new texts for every class is ludicrous. In science classes, an earlier edition is generally just as good, and saves a lot of money. Fortunately, many science professors use the online question sets for a flat, per-student fee (often picked up by the department), rather than rely on the embedded text questions.
    I do remember one professor who was writing a text on the subject. He bound the chapters he’d finished, available for a nominal price.
    In many of my classes (in the mid-80’s), it was common for a professor to find useful ancillary reading, and have it copied/bound for students for a very reasonable price ($4-$10). Also, many published their class notes, the same way (this was before WWW).
    There were, on the other hand, some departments that were notorious for assigning very expensive books – History, English, and Education. (Hmmm, the likeliest departments to be Woke, it happens).
    In business classes, the only reasonably expensive book I needed was on Commercial Law – and, it contained the whole of the UCC – Uniform Commercial Code – at the time. It was a valuable reference for years.
    Years later, I returned to the same university for my Master’s. Not only had the price of the degree skyrocketed, but the price of books, as well.

    • “There were, on the other hand, some departments that were notorious for assigning very expensive books – History, English, and Education. (Hmmm, the likeliest departments to be Woke, it happens).”

      Also, as Yale would put it, the least “vocational”. 😉

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