Some reassurances about ebooks

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The ebooks@cambridge team has learned that there is anxiety among some students about the future of ebook provision at Cambridge, with concerns that ebook access is at risk of being scaled back. After hearing this, we wanted to put out a blog post to offer some reassurance. We would also like to address a recent issue, where a major publisher withdrew their titles from a large ebook subscription and then later backtracked, as we believe that this may have sparked some of these worries.

The main point to emphasise is that there are absolutely no plans to reduce our investment in ebooks. The ebooks team at Cambridge works closely with faculty, departmental and College libraries to provide online books for teaching and learning, and we believe that continued investment in both individually purchased ebooks and in collections plays a vital role in providing inclusive access to teaching resources.

It is true that our ability to provide ebook access is subject to the academic publishers, and there will be times when we are either not able to provide certain texts as ebooks, owing to high costs or non-availability (you can find further details on our LibGuide), or where subscription access (and sometimes sales rights) is withdrawn by a publisher.

Many of the ebook collections we buy are permanent, and will never disappear, but some collections are only available as yearly subscriptions. The great thing about these subscriptions is that we can unlock huge selections of titles, offering students far wider online access than if we only bought ebooks on a title-by-title basis or in permanent collections. The downside is that we don’t own these ebooks, and nor is continued access to these titles guaranteed as part of the subscription package.

Two of our big ebook subscriptions are ProQuest’s Ebook Central Academic Complete and EBSCO Academic. Each subscription provides access to over 200,000 ebooks, and the collections are refreshed twice a year: every January and every June, new content is added, but (on the flipside) a small percentage of the content is also withdrawn at the request of the publishers. The ebooks team receives advance warning of these withdrawals, and we liaise with faculty libraries to purchase the ebooks that are on reading lists. Where this is not possible, librarians will put chapters on Moodle or buy extra print copies.

Occasionally, a publisher will decide to remove a larger than usual number of titles from a subscription collection. You may have heard that the publisher Wiley recently caused controversy by removing thousands of titles from the Ebook Central Academic Complete subscription, many of which were hugely popular reading list titles. Wiley withdrew these titles just ahead of the new academic year, which was bad enough, but they also limited the ebook purchase options for these works, so that the titles were only available to buy with temporary licenses, some of them at prices so high that they were practically unaffordable. There was an outcry from academic librarians, with the result that Wiley has now temporarily reinstated access to the ebooks until June 2023. You can read more about this case on the ebookSOS campaign website.    

The Wiley issue illustrates some of the problems with the current academic ebook market, but there are positives too. Academic librarians are working to change academic publishing so that future ebook access is more sustainable and fair, partly through campaign initiatives like ebookSOS, but also in the drive towards open access publishing. Open access is very much on the agenda at Cambridge, and we have started to support more open access ebook schemes, with plans to expand this investment in the future.

At Cambridge, too, we try to tailor our electronic collections to the needs of our students and researchers. Some of our ebook subscriptions are known as “evidence based” or “demand driven”, which in short allows us to make thousands of ebooks available in the catalogue, but we only buy the titles that are actually being used. As mentioned earlier, the ebooks@cambridge team also work with our colleagues in faculty, departmental and College libraries to provide access to specific ebooks for taught courses. We will always try to make an ebook available for teaching and learning where it is possible and affordable to do so; where it is not possible, librarians will provide print copies, chapter scans, or liaise with academics to find alternative texts.

Please do get in touch if you have any questions or worries about this issue. You can write to the ebooks team at: 

Please also feel free to reach out to the ebooks team if you ever have any questions about using ebooks, problems accessing or finding ebooks, or if you have any feedback. You can also request new ebooks through the online “New book” form, and it will be funnelled to the relevant team. We are all here to help and we are always happy to hear from you.

You can also find us on Twitter and on the Ebooks LibGuide.

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