A look at ebook usage in 2020-21

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Image by Myriam Jessier on Unsplash

The ebooks team has recently collated usage statistics for 2020-21. Over 210,000 individual ebook titles were consulted by Cambridge users across our 65+ ebook platforms during this period. Cambridge librarians can download the whole dataset from the Usage statistics section of the ebooks@cambridge intranet site. Please see below for some highlights.

Yearly usage comparison

Bar graph depicting the number of total ebook hits by Cambridge users in each academic year. The X-axis shows the years 2013-14 to 2020-21.

The number of total hits rises each year until 2018-19, which saw 5281343 hits. Usage then falls by over a million to 4228688 hits in 2019-20, rising again to 5237844 hits in 220-21.

2013-14 had 2441454 hits, 2014-45 had 3137398 hits, 2015-16 had 3172505 hits, 2016-17 had 3570793 hits, 2017-18 had 4495894 hits, 2018-19 had 5281343 hits, 2019-20 had 4228688 hits , 2020-21 had 5237844 hits.
Total hits by academic year

You may note that (strangely!) yearly usage appears to dip in 2019-20. Not only does this buck the trend of ebook usage generally growing year on year from 2013-14, but it is also the opposite of what you would expect to see during the pandemic, given our users’ increased reliance on online resources (particularly during Spring 2020) and the expansion of our electronic holdings.

So why the dip in 2019-20? The reason is to do with reporting standards. Where available, Cambridge uses standardised COUNTER reporting, and 2019-20 saw a lot of our suppliers switching from COUNTER 4 to the updated COUNTER 5. COUNTER 5 introduced increased “double click filtering” (i.e. two clicks in succession on a link by the same user within a set period). COUNTER 4 measures double clicks within a ten second period as a single click, while COUNTER 5 does the same within a thirty second period, which results in far fewer clicks or hits being recorded, so numbers look greatly reduced. The timing of this switch is slightly frustrating, as it prevents us from properly measuring how ebook usage has jumped during the pandemic. However, COUNTER 5 provides improved metrics for measuring usage data, so we hope that (as the majority of suppliers ideally make the move to R5 to create a more uniform landscape) it will allow for a much better quality of data reporting in the future. 2020-21 saw the numbers start to come up again, which we hope will continue during the current academic year.

Usage by month (comparing 2019-20 and 2020-21)

Bar chart comparing monthly total hits in the 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years. The X-axis shows the months. The Y-axis shows the number of hits from 0 to 600,000. The 2019-20 and 2020-21 academic years display separately as different coloured bars.

Generally, 2020-21 has a higher number of hits than 2019-20 on a month by month basis. October 2021 records nearly double the number of hits as October 2020. December shows roughly the same levels of usage in 2019 and 2020. April to July 2020 show higher levels of usage than April to July 2021.

If we compare usage by month in 2019-20 and 2020-21, we see a general monthly increase in 2020-21, except for the April – July period. This is perhaps unsurprising, as library buildings were closed during April -July 2020. The 2019-20 peak was May (549893 hits), during the exam period.

The busiest month in 2020-21 was November (599020 hits), and the quietest month was July (224222 hits). Usage in October 2020 is double that of October 2019, but usage in December of both years stays roughly the same.

Here are the top ten most popular ebook platforms in 2020-21:

Bar chart depicting the top ten most used platforms in 2020-21. The Y-axis shows the platforms and the X-axis shows the number of hits from 0 to 2 million.

The top 10 platforms from most to least popular are:
Ebook Central, Cambridge Core, De Gruyter online, EBSCOhost, Oxford Scholarship Online, Oxford Law Trove, Askews & Holts, ScienceDirect, Oxford Handbooks Online, SpringerLink.

Ebook Central has a total of 1808221 hits, closely followed by Cambridge Core with 1460078 hits.

The remaining platforms fall between 86178 hits (SpringerLink) and 196776 hits (De Gruyter).
  • The top ten platforms include most of the usual suspects, comprising a selection of popular publishers in the Arts, Humanities, Social Sciences and STEMM, as well as our three big aggregator platforms, Askews & Holts (VLeBooks), Ebook Central and EBSCOhost.
  • Law Trove is slightly anomalous, as it is a resource mainly (though not exclusively) used by one faculty. However, it is consistent with the overall high levels of usage of Law electronic resources. Many of the top ten popular individual titles in 2020-21 were Law titles. (See our next usage statistics post!)
  • Ebook Central is the winner by quite a margin! Ebook Central was already a well-used platform, as one of our main suppliers of title-by-title ebooks, and as the home of the UL’s popular Ebook Central DDA scheme. However, since 2020 platform usage has shot up further still with our subscription to ProQuest’s Academic Complete collection, which includes over 200,000 ebooks across a wide variety of subject areas from a range of academic publishers.
  • We also subscribe to the big interdisciplinary EBSCO Academic Complete Worldwide collection (in addition to individually purchased titles), but you will note that EBSCO usage is a fair bit lower than Ebook Central. We expect that this is partly due to title duplication in the two subscription collections; the alphabetical display of electronic holdings in iDiscover means that the Ebook Central link is the dominant one. Although there is some overlap between the EBSCO and ProQuest collections, there is a great deal of useful content unique to the EBSCO collection, and EBSCO is still high on the list as our fourth most popular platform.
  • We will be keeping an interested eye on ScienceDirect ebook usage when we collate the current year’s usage statistics. We subscribed to the ScienceDirect All Access collection in May 2021, which includes nearly 40,000 titles and should increase platform usage considerably.

The biggest risers in platform usage this year:

Askews & Holts (+740%)

Art & Architecture ePortal (+598%)

Mohr Siebeck (+573%)

Law Trove (+221%)

EBSCOhost (+210%)

Note: Many of our Dawson ebooks were transferred to Askews & Holts (VLeBooks) when Dawson Books closed in July 2020, which will account in part for the jump in usage. Askews & Holts is also often the only institutional supplier of trade ebooks, so this platform is well-used by faculties in the Arts & Humanities.

A few of our more specialised platforms …

We have mostly focused on the big hitters, but it’s also worth drawing attention to some of our more niche ebook platforms. These platforms inevitably fall on the lower end of the usage scale, perhaps due to their specialisation as foreign language collections, because the platforms are relatively new to us, or the collections are small, but they are nevertheless valuable online resources for research and teaching.

BookRail (selected Korean-language ebooks)

KinoDen (selected Japanese-language ebooks)

Vanderhoeck & Ruprecht (selected German-language ebooks)

Equinox (selected titles in cultural and religious studies)

Download the complete spreadsheet of usage statistics for 2020-21 from the Usage statistics section of the ebooks@cambridge intranet site, or contact ebooks@lib.cam.ac.uk.

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