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Ebooks: Scandal or Market Economics – the Q&A special

By Kirsty, on 22 March 2021

After last week’s webinar, there was so much interest in the recording that we hurried to get the post out, leaving us with some of the leftover questions to answer!

As promised, we put some of the unanswered questions to our panellists and here are the answers you have been waiting for!

A couple of simple ones to start off with:

  • Does Ben know if the Dutch library service has done anything since the court judgement to develop a lending service based on digitising their physical stock and avoiding overcharges for e-books?

No, the Dutch Library Association did not utilise the ruling in any way I can see – they simply continued to license eBooks from publishers to my knowledge.

  • Will the #ebooksos google spreadsheet be updated as publishers change their policies/books become available, so the info is always up to date?

The #ebooksos spreadsheet is a resource to collect evidence rather than a record of current practices of the different publishers. Changes to publisher practices and other updates on the campaign activity will be shared on the campaign’s website: https://academicebookinvestigation.org/

There was a really interesting question about existing university presses:

  • (Some) existing University presses follow the same practices as commercial publishers, how easily can these be reformed / transformed? How do we prevent other university presses from following suit and being tempted to commercialise once it becomes successful?

Paul responded – Open Science represents a profound culture change in the way research, teaching and learning are delivered. This is clear from the LERU (League of European Research Universities) paper on Open Science and cultural change at https://www.leru.org/publications/open-science-and-its-role-in-universities-a-roadmap-for-cultural-change. The issue, therefore, is to embed Open Science as part of the ‘new normal’ going forwards. That in itself is a process, not a simple event. But, as progress is made, then current practices will change and embrace Open Science approaches.

And one about authors and copyright:

  • How difficult is it for authors to retain copyright of what is being published or to insist their titles are made available Open Access?

Paul responded – For UCL, our position is that staff and students retain copyright in the works they create. And funders are increasingly asking for Rights Retention by funded authors, which would trump any signing away of copyright in the published version to a publisher. This is Open Science in practice.

Charles Oppenheim also commented in the session – retention of copyright and instead granting the publisher a licence is all down to the author negotiating with the publisher. The author should also seek equivalent royalties to print sales for ebook sales. Insisting that the book be made OA is again down to the author negotiating with the publisher. The key point is that the author should be prepared to walk away if the publisher won’t play ball. I think there is a role for librarians and scholarly communications folk to advise and encourage academics.

Finally, you had a number of questions for Paul about UCL Press & eTextbook publishing:

  • Paul, now UCL Press is five years old, what would you say are the pros and cons so far?

Pros: Huge impact of UCL research across the world as a result of OA availability; the availability of high quality research to the general public, free at point of use; the ability of the published outputs disseminated as OA to influence strategy and policy decisions by decision makers across the world.

Challenge: Winning support from more authors to publish OA monographs and textbooks; establishing a viable financial model.

  • What impact has publishing an OA textbook vs an OA monograph had on staffing? Are you able to achieve this with the existing team – or will you take on additional staff to oversee this activity? Do the two different types of publishing co-exist or are they likely to remain separate?

UCL Press will need to increase its staffing complement in order to build a textbook list. All UCL teaching is based in our research insights. In that sense, research feeds teaching. However, in terms of publishing outputs, the routes are different.

  • Given the costs of producing a higher-end textbook with a courseware platform can be in the region of $0.5-3m, where would we as a sector prioritise development? Which disciplines, which titles to replace, and would it be as open textbooks, or as OERs?

The position taken by the Press is that we will start by identifying e-textbooks currently in use in the university and commission academics to write their own, which the Press will publish as OA. AS to format, we are looking at a range of options, and these will be informed by our interactions with academics.

  • What is the size of the problem? If we took for example a community (i.e. scaled up from UCL) based OER based route how many textbooks would we need to produce? How much would that cost? Are there particular priority areas we should concentrate on? Indeed do we even need ‘textbooks’ but rather appropriate e content

Each university will wish to teach individual subjects in their own way, built around the insights and expertise of their academic body. It is certainly not the case that ‘one size fits all’. A consortial publishing model would need to be flexible enough to accommodate this multi-layered approach in identifying titles to publish. And yes, outputs do not need to be simply textbooks. We will consider a range of outputs as our insights in the Press grow.

So I hope that answered some of the most pressing questions you had!

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