by Ben Purvis
The oligopoly of academic publishers is widely recognised as a growing barrier to an open access knowledge commons in the digital age. The discourse typically focuses on academic journals, whose lucrative business model relies on the free labour of editors, reviewers, and authors, with the resultant product sold back to university libraries at great cost. Many of us within the sector tacitly accept this model, with little choice but to engage with it, and are often only reminded of its ludicrous inequity when we explain it to those not in the know and experience their incredulous response. Even the open access agenda has been co-opted by publishers who offload the loss of profit from paywalls to the authors who must pay an ‘open access fee’, reinforcing inequities for early career scholars, precarious researchers, and those without access to substantial funding sources.
Yet over the course of the pandemic an otherwise little-known iniquity has risen in prominence: the status of the ebook, largely due to the efforts of academic librarians through the #ebooksos campaign.
Librarians play a crucial and often underappreciated role in the free flow of knowledge. This work has become more visible in the last year due to patrons’ lack of access to physical stock. Within both research and learning and teaching this has necessitated a shift to digital resources. Whilst academic texts may be obtained through various unscrupulous means, this has ethical and accessibility implications, and is often not possible for books. Freezes in purchase orders of physical books, and barriers to their circulation, has thus produced a vastly increased demand for ebooks.
Licensing regulations mean that libraries cannot purchase the individual licenses we would buy ourselves from online retailers, but are forced by UK copyright law to purchase institutional licenses. This results in a monopoly whereby publishers can charge prohibitively high costs for restrictive licenses which limit the number of users and force annual renewal. A crowdsourced spreadsheet provides some typical examples, frequently more than 10 times the cost of the same print material. In a particularly egregious case, a popular Sage text that retails at £25 is offered at £50,000 for a single-user institutional license.
As a response, academic librarians have begun to organise under the #ebooksos campaign spearheaded by Johanna Anderson, a subject librarian at the University of Gloucestershire. The campaign has been successful in raising the profile of these issues, both through an open letter and a media campaign, gaining the attention of national press, and wide support across the sector. Despite inadequate responses from the Universities minister and the Education Select Committee, the campaign has submitted a complaint to the Competitions and Markets Authority and is exploring options for non-profit and open-access publishing.
The campaign represents an effective example of grassroots organising, and raises important questions about the current health of the knowledge commons. Academics on the whole do not publish for fame or profit, but in the spirit of distributing knowledge as a public good. Publishers could form an integral part of enabling this: open and non-profit movements exist, but the dominant model still relies on enclosing the knowledge commons in order to maintain profits. With several large firms swallowing smaller publishing houses and relying on large teams of litigators and lobbyists to maintain dominance, there is a need to radically rethink our relation to them as educators, researchers, and librarians.
Dr Ben Purvis is a Research Associate at the University of Sheffield School of Architecture.