Library Services


E-Books pricing scandal: “the solution is in our hands”

19 May 2021

Dr Paul Ayris discussed how open access publishing might be a key solution to the prohibitive pricing and restrictive licencing of e-books.

Library user working on their laptop inside a library

The closure of library sites across the UK during the pandemic meant that many customers relied on e-books. 

The price of e-books for libraries can be prohibitively expensive. For example, one education textbook that is offered to libraries for £36.99 in print is £480 for an e-book that can only be read by one student at a time. The result is that many libraries do not provide them. For public libraries this can lead to a decrease in customers. 

Over 600 practitioners and experts from around the world convened at E-books: Scandal or Market Economics, a webinar organised by the UCL Office for Open Science/Scholarship to discuss potential solutions to the issue. The event had three presentations:  

Johanna Anderson (Subject Librarian for Natural and Social Sciences at the University of Gloucestershire) spoke about the #ebooksos campaign which is demanding an investigation into academic e-books. Alongside extensive media coverage, the campaign has published an open letter which has attracted over 3,900 signatures to date.  

They are also crowd sourcing examples of prohibitive pricing and licensing restrictions. It is estimated that 10% of academic e-books are available under restrictive licensing, only in bundles, and are sold to libraries at incredibly high costs for single user use or one-year access. In some cases, this has meant that academics have had to change or remove books or authors from their reading lists. 

Ben White (Centre for Intellectual Property Policy & Management at Bournemouth University and chair of the Legal Working Group of LIBER (Ligue des Bibliothèques Européennes de Recherche) discussed libraries, e-books and copyright.

Unlike print books, libraries cannot lend e-books between themselves through inter-library loan schemes. This has a massive impact on students and researchers. One solution could be  CDL – Controlled Digital Lending – which would mean users could be given access to any library-owned digitised work for a limited period. 

Dr Paul Ayris (UCL Library Services & UCL Office for Open Science and Scholarship) discussed the potential of Open Access. UCL Press – founded in 2015 and the UK’s first fully Open Access University Press – has published 185 research monographs that have been downloaded over 4 million times in 244 countries and territories. 

Building on the success of its monograph publishing program, the new UCL E-Textbook platform aims to deliver the same form of OA publication, that is geared to the needs of the curriculum, interdisciplinary collaboration, supporting students and libraries, and to bring publishing back into the academy. 

Dr Ayris said:

"It is all about turning a threat into an opportunity by bringing the publication of educational material back into the academy. A clear indication for the potential of this format is UCL’s first published OA e-textbook: Textbook of Plastic & Reconstructive Surgery by Deepak Kalaskar et al. (London: UCL Press, 2016). This volume, freely available in OA, has been downloaded 94,247 times in 192 countries and territories."

Find out more

To find out more read E-Textbooks – scandal or market imperative? a post on the LSE blog co-authored by Johanna Anderson, Paul Ayris and Ben White.