November 17, 2017

New Ebook Platforms Target the Scholarly Monograph

A number of projects are nearing fruition whose goal is to ensure that scholarly books and university presses are not left behind by the ebook market, and academic librarians are watching the efforts with eagerness and interest.

The University Press E-Book Consortium (UPeC), Oxford’s University Press Scholarship Online (UPSO), Books at JSTOR, and Project Muse Editions have all been separately exploring ways to create a new collaborative business model and ebook platform that would better fit the financial and research needs of academic libraries as well as keep struggling scholarly publishers in business, as recently reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

“These efforts to establish a common platform for university presses are of great interest to academic libraries, since our users, students, and faculty, are increasingly expecting ebooks supplied from libraries,” Carol Moore, the chief librarian at the University of Toronto and chair of the Reshaping Scholarly Communication Steering Committee of the Association of Research Libraries, told LJAN.

“Many of our users say they prefer print books, but in fact the actual usage of the ebooks we have currently has surpassed our print loans. … we want to buy ebooks, but there are currently a host of problems in purchasing what our users want,” she said.

Caitlin Tillman, the head of collection development in Toronto, saw a lot of upside in the platform projects.

“As long as no one platform requires the publisher to use them exclusively and as long as that platform allows for the ebook to be downloaded on a variety of devices, efforts to create common platforms for university presses have huge potential for academic libraries who just want ebooks to be as straightforward to purchase and circulate as the printed text,” she said.

A more friendly model for academic libraries

The nonprofit University Press eBook Consortium (UPeC) started with a $125,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2009, and it drew inspiration from a 2007 ITHAKA report that delineated the challenges facing all these endeavors.

“We felt the current system is broken, and that if we could build a better system, then libraries would want to purchase our content,” Steve Maikowski told LJAN. Maikowski heads New York University Press and is one of the team of press directors managing the project.

Maikowski reports to Carol A. Mandel, the dean of the division of libraries at New York University and president of ARL’s Board of Directors. She said that most models being devised for the market, with their emphasis on proprietary ereaders and heavy digital rights management [DRM], “do not fit the mission or realities of libraries.”

“While librarians and university press publishers have not always seen eye-to-eye, UPeC is being designed specifically with libraries, especially academic libraries, in mind,” Mandel said. “…I hope it will be a model and help push some part of the market in a more library-friendly direction.”

Maikowski said that the project’s goal was to present an extensive suite of peer-reviewed scholarship (possibly 3000 frontlist titles and 30,000 backlist titles) in a one-stop, multipress platform that would spread the cost for publishers and offer a fair price to libraries.

“We felt that if we came up with a transformative pricing model that would price collections rather than books, and if we aggressively discount the backlist pricing, that we could create an attractive model that libraries could afford,” he said.

In addition, the digital monographs would be available at the same time as print.

“For me, one of the key features is the very light DRM, which will allow users much more flexibility with what they can do with content,” Mandel said. “And while the product will launch largely with PDF files, it will very quickly move to ePub versions, at least for the most needed titles, that will have much more functionality,” she said.

Moore said that university presses were extremely important to collection development and the dissemination of faculty research, but she said they had to keep pace with the changes in reading devices and in formats, such as ePub.

“For libraries to meet the demands/expectations of our clientele, we need ebook suppliers that offer products in formats that can be integrated with other electronic content and read on computers and mobile devices that our clients are using. Many users also want the ability to print or download reasonable portions of the book,” she said.

“If presses do not come up with a business model that is workable for them and affordable for their clients-libraries represent a significant percentage of their revenue- someone else will come up with a way to fulfill their function,” she added.

UPeC has so far received nonbinding letters of intent from 60 presses (there are about 100 presses in all), and this month it received another grant from the Mellon Foundation ($47,000) to delineate the user features and pricing model as well as to select a business partner (by February) to host and market the platform. The target launch date is this autumn.

Some lessons for public libraries?

James G. Neal, VP for Information Services and University Librarian at Columbia University, said he was eagerly watching the development of this and other projects since they can further the commitment to “a rich and robust scholarly communication system” and expand and enrich access to front and backlist scholarly monographs. He also noted potentially wider implications.

“The public library community also has a firm stake in the success of these ventures, as they serve the diverse reading interests of their users,” he said. “These university press projects may influence the way public libraries approach the commercial and popular presses.”

Mandel also saw some commonalities with the public sector.

“What public libraries mostly need is the one-at-a-time download/circulation, which academic libraries need, too. Also, ILL is important for both, and UPeC is addressing that,” she said.

At the American Library Association’s Midwinter Meeting in San Diego (January 7-11), JSTOR (a division of ITHAKA) announced the nonprofit Books at JSTOR, a project expected to be available in 2012 and which has essentially the same goal as UPeC of “overcoming limitations on use and offering flexible purchase models for libraries, while developing a sustainable model for publishers…,” according to a company press release.

University presses from Chicago, Minnesota, North Carolina, Princeton, and Yale already have signed on to the project. The books will be integrated with the 1600 current and archival journals on JSTOR, and the platform also promises to embrace technology that would allow scholars to incorporate a variety of media (e.g., video, GIS technologies) into their work.

Neal, at Columbia, said this ability to innovate was one of the attractions of such platforms.

“We want to avoid some of the challenges of the e-journal revolution in terms of pricing, overlap, restrictions on use, searching, preservation,” he said. “We also want to see a quicker move by authors to take advantage of the technologies that enable new ways to present extended arguments, integrating multimedia and 2.0 features.”

Casper Grathwohl, VP, digital publisher, at Oxford, sees a similar potential. “UPSO is really about unlocking the power of the academic monograph…. I believe it will make a significant contribution to the development of the monograph in its next phase of life,” he said in a press release.

UPSO is launching a pilot program in March with Fordham University Press and, like UPeC, is targeting a full launch in the fall.

Digital preservation is a key consideration for libraries.

“Research libraries, such as University of Toronto, also require the ability to preserve the ebook content over time,” Moore said. She urged suppliers to “to produce content using open standards that can be migrated to new technical formats in the future.”

Books at JSTOR, for example, will preserve all material in Portico.

Project Muse Editions also held a meeting at the ALA meeting in San Diego, and it plans to launch a beta version in March with 27 publishers, according to the Chronicle. The ebook collections will be available alongside MUSE journal collections, according to the company website.

“There is no doubt that the pace of change and the current economic stringency have strained relations between publishers and libraries, which are historically partners in achieving their missions,” Moore said. “However, I see many leaders in both publishing and libraries who are working together to address the need for change.”

Michael Kelley About Michael Kelley

Michael Kelley (mkelley@mediasourceinc.com) is the former Editor-in-Chief, Library Journal.

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