University of St Andrews

JISC Collections e-textbook business models trials, 2009-2010
Library Case Study –University of St Andrews

Background, introduction and link to the trials

In Autumn 2008, JISC Collections engaged consultants to arrange a series of trials involving publishers of core textbooks serving UK higher education, the principle aggregators used by HE libraries and a selection of higher education institutions. The purpose of the trials was to try to find appropriate business models that would allow for library-delivery of e-textbooks to students.

In April 2009, and preceding any trials, the consultants produced a landscape report which surveyed the current status of the higher education textbook market in the UK and also drew on examples from overseas to chart the development of the e-textbook and the various initiatives being pursued by publishers.

One of the aims of the landscape report was to put forward recommendations about options for business model trials for widely‐adopted core textbooks, in order to provide data to inform future strategy for all stakeholders. Following discussions by the consultants with a number of libraries, publishers and aggregators, the trials began in September 2009 with ten UK HE institutions, eight textbook publishers and three aggregators taking part. Publishers placed between 1 and 3 textbooks in the trials, and in the majority of the cases, the textbooks were made available via the library’s aggregator of choice. There were 17 e-textbooks in total across 24 trials.

The overall objectives of the trials were:

  • To analyse the economics of a selection of business models for e-textbooks and course text e-books in terms of impact on publisher print sales / revenue and library budgets
  • To assess the management of a selection of business models for e-textbooks and course text e-books in terms of administrative burden and ease of implementation
  • To make recommendations about business models for e-textbooks and course texts e-books following the trials, that are sustainable both in terms of profitability and value for money.

The case study below gives brief details of the experience of participating in the trials by the Library at the University of St Andrews. This provides information to supplement the more detailed findings in the final report.

Institution name: University of St Andrews

General extent of e-book provision by the library:

The Library constantly evaluates new technologies and resources which will benefit users and meet the evolving teaching and research needs of staff and students.  One result of this has been a significant and growing investment in e-books.  Their obvious benefits – unrestricted 24/7 access, ease of use and accessibility, personalisation functionality, importance to distance students, etc – have led to a current total of 12,000 permanent-access e-books being held by the Library.  This represents a rise of over 5,000 titles since May 2009. (This total excludes the 280,000 e-book titles in Early English Books Online (EEBO) and Eighteenth Century Collections Online (ECCO)).

These e-book holdings cover many subject areas and range from individual titles and e-books in major publishers series, to online reference works.  Most are bought on an ongoing-access basis and a number of permanent-access Arts and Humanities e-book collections have been purchased as they offer good cost-per-title value;  usage statistics indicate that most titles are used, by both staff and students, despite not being bought as part of a selected-title bundle.  Later editions are generally available, if required, for an additional fee. Where possible, the Library purchases e-versions of current Multiple Copies and Short Loan items to ensure easier access for users, though, of course, many textbooks are not yet available as e-books.

Local interest in e-books is high, as evidenced by St Andrews providing the second highest number of responses, from Scottish Universities, to the JISC National Observatory E-Book Project exit survey.  Some academic Schools express greater interest in e-books than others; some retain a preference for print as back up, but overall, there is general interest in the future of e-textbook developments.  These factors will all serve to inform the Library’s e-book collection development policy which is currently being formulated.

Engagement with teaching staff regarding the trial:

Without exception, teaching staff were interested in this project and keen to take part.  Staff consultation took place prior to, and during the trials, and teaching staff helped to publicise the availability of the e-book(s) to their students, on more than one occasion. All the titles were felt to be important and relevant, with one being described as an ‘outstanding’ text.  Most communication with teaching staff was direct, but Academic Liaison staff was also used to issue follow-up reminders.  Teaching staff also helped to disseminate the final short student questionnaire.  Staff involvement was regarded as being crucial to this project, and communication worked well, but in retrospect, it might have been helpful to have had both an initial short meeting and a follow-up meeting, with these staff, to discuss progress and to help maximise their engagement with the trial.

How details of the e-book were made available and how it was accessed:

Details of the e-text trials were circulated to students on the relevant courses, via the academic Schools and directly through the Library Representatives and teaching staff, as academic validation was seen to be important.  Academic Liaison librarians were asked to mention the trials during their user education sessions; they also handed out the registration flyers for the one text which needed this, after the initial publicity email was sent out.  Teaching staff were asked to remind their students of the trials during the trial period, and were used to circulate, and add support to, the student questionnaire.  Catalogue records and links for each text were added to the Library’s online catalogue, and access details were provided to students in the initial publicity e-mail.  Details were included in user education sessions held by Academic Liaison staff, and students were shown the access route through the catalogue.

Feedback from teaching staff and students:

Much of the feedback was verbal, rather than written, but both students and staff were appreciative of the free access for the duration of the trial.  Several comments about the helpfulness of having 24/7 and off-campus access were received from students.  The response to the student questionnaire was, unusually, disappointing, but this could be ascribed to a combination of pressure around imminent examinations, and possibly, an element of ‘survey fatigue’.  It was thought best not to follow the questionnaire up while students were in the process of revising for exams; ideally, it would have been circulated earlier, locally.

Teaching staff were very pleased with all the titles offered, with one being described as an ‘outstanding’ text for first year students. However, the short lead-in to the ‘live’ trial was seen as a problem as it did not afford them sufficient time for course development by incorporating these texts, setting assignments, etc.  Course handbooks, VLE modules and reading lists need to be finalised in good time before semesters begin, and the timing of the trial did not allow enough time for this. Comments from staff suggested that if they had the chance to use the texts for another year, it would be far easier for them to prepare teaching materials, over the summer.

Views on the level of usage:

Given that none of the titles were classed by teaching staff as ‘core’ texts, usage was reasonable, with all the titles being used.  The average length of reading session per user, for the EBL-hosted texts, varied between 56 and 119 minutes; and the average number of pages accessed, varied between 65 and 82 pages per person, depending on the title. This suggests that those students who used them, found it helpful to have online access to the texts.  Almost half the potential users on one course, used the relevant text, but smaller percentages of users (1/4 and 1/7) used the other two texts.  A quarter of potential users used the text which required pre-registration, so although it was felt that the registration process acted as a deterrent, the text still received reasonable use, despite it not being a ‘core’ text, and fully embedded in the course.  Disappointingly, usage was not sufficient to trigger some of the additional functionality offered by a couple of the texts e.g. to purchase the entire e-book, pay for a download, etc.  It would have been instructive to see how users responded if all 3 simultaneous accesses had been in use. It is possible, too, that students were unaware of these options.

There was a slight decrease in the number of print copies of one text purchased locally, but a small increase for another title; this could have been due to a number of factors, for example, a change in class size, and not necessarily due to the trial access, so it is not possible to reach any firm conclusion from this.

Circulation figures also do not allow definitive conclusions to be drawn, as all existing print copies (of all editions of all titles) continued to be borrowed, throughout the trial period.  In one case, an earlier edition of one trial title, which was held on Short Loan, was borrowed a significant number of times more than the e-text was used.  It was, of course, viewed as a ‘core’ text since it was on Short Loan, despite the later online edition being available.  In another case, the same print edition of one of the trial e-textbooks, was borrowed significantly less than it had been in previous years, suggesting that the e-textbook availability might have been a contributory factor in this.  In retrospect, some rationalisation of what was already held in print, in conjunction with teaching staff using the trial texts as ‘core’ texts, would almost certainly have made a difference to the use of the e-texts.

Preferred pricing models from publishers for library-delivered e-textbooks:

Until now, the Library has tended to purchase individual unlimited-access e-books and permanent access e-book collections.   Unlimited concurrent user access would continue to be our preference, to ensure guaranteed access at point-of need, although one could argue that this would not be essential on a year-round basis, for e-textbooks.  If publisher pricing was to preclude this type of access to e-textbooks, then it would be essential to have guaranteed access for periods of peak demand during the academic year.

Funding issues make the ability of the Library to provide e-textbooks for all students unlikely; students are normally expected to purchase their own print copies.  Given that any textbooks currently purchased by the Library are bought in very small numbers for Short Loan, or as Multiple Copies, most of the pricing models suggested by publishers would result in significant and prohibitive cost increases.  Any model which linked costs with student numbers on a particular course, would prove unaffordable.  In the same way, any model which restricted access to certain users would not be helpful, neither would a credit model or a rental model for short-term access, nor any model requiring Library intervention.   Access needs to be guaranteed, transparent, and available at point-of-need, irrespective of student numbers or time of academic year.

A more sustainable and affordable pricing model would be one based on the list price of the textbook and the number of print copies that the Library would normally buy; the expectation would be that an e-textbook would be cheaper than print.  Limited concurrent accesses would be acceptable, in order to decrease costs, but only if these limits were set at satisfactory levels. Another possible solution might lie in unlimited-access, selected-title, e-textbook collections, for a fixed price, with later editions to replace older editions, perhaps on a subscription basis.  The price of these collections could be JISC-banded, as are many e-resources, and available for consortium-negotiated purchase. Added-value texts are undoubtedly valuable if used fully as ‘core’ texts, but the option of cheaper, ‘light’ text-only versions would also be worth considering.

In the longer-term, it does seem likely that students will continue to be the main purchasers of e-textbooks or ‘nuggets’ of information from e-textbooks, and that mobile access will have a significant part to play.  Libraries would expect to provide back-up access, however, much in the same way as they currently purchase Short Loan or multiple copies of print textbooks to support student use.  How these purchases are made –  whether through a national or regional Library consortium, directly from a publisher, in collaboration with academic Schools, or by involvement with publishers/LMS suppliers – remains uncertain, but developments in all these areas should be closely monitored.

Useful lessons learnt from the trial in terms of future library strategy for providing access to e-textbooks:

The trial has helped the Library to promote the e-textbook issue with teaching staff and students, and to engage in fruitful dialogue with them about their need for e-textbooks – and about their thoughts about e-books, in general.  It has emphasised how vital timing is, when introducing texts that are to be used for teaching, as sufficient prior notice, to enable full integration of functionality into School teaching, VLE courses, reading lists, course handbooks, etc., is essential.  This type of development time is at a premium, once the academic year begins.

The trial has shown that there is significant staff interest in added-value e-textbooks and has highlighted how important the validation of teaching staff is, in maximising e-textbook use by students.  Texts which are classed as ‘core’ texts are most likely to be used; ones which are not specifically treated as ‘core’ titles will be regarded as more peripheral, which is likely to affect their use.

The academic School which trialled the added-value text had previously adopted another WileyPLUS title, to accompany a core text, so they were already aware of the advantages offered by this format.  The underuse of the trial text seems to have resulted from it not being fully embedded into the curriculum, and thus not being seen as a ‘core’ text, possibly combined with the initial registration acting as a deterrent.  Although many flyers were distributed for this e-title, the number of registrants fell far short of the total.  Registration seemed to be seen as an obstacle by users, no matter how little time it took, so seamless access to e-textbooks is a high priority, although this may conflict with the ability to retain important personalisation functionality.

Additional publicity, especially by teaching staff, would almost certainly have resulted in greater use of these e-texts, if they had been promoted as essential texts.  Perhaps some rationalisation of the existing text editions held on Short Loan would also have been helpful, as they continued to be borrowed, and this possibly affected the usage of the e-textbook versions.

Local interest in e-books continues to grow, and the emergence of new mobile technology will undoubtedly change the way in which libraries offer e-resources.  Mobile access to certain databases is currently being implemented here, and the expectation is that the demand for this type of access to e-books/e-textbooks will grow, if the issues surrounding usability, platform standardisation, digital rights management, and of course, pricing, can be satisfactorily resolved. There is already some School use being made of publishers’ proprietary e-textbooks, and the Library would expect to have some input into local developments in this area, as it would into any discussions between Schools and integrated content/learning management systems providers.

As the central procurement service for digital content for UK HE, JISC Collections would have an important role to play in liaising with digital course material providers such as CourseSmart, and in monitoring developments between publishers and learning management providers, on behalf of libraries.