The challenge of eBooks: more access, less cost. Can it be done?

Are your students telling you they’re unable to access their textbook online? Have you recently reviewed the online books you use in your teaching? Do you know about access restrictions?  

There are a variety of restrictions in place across eBooks:  

  • Concurrent users: some offer very restrictive licenses that only allow 3 people (or even fewer) to access a book at the same time 

  • Downloading: some allow users to download a book for only one day, or one week, before the book disappears like magic from their device  

  • Printing: some don’t allow you to print, forcing students to read online 

  • Copy/paste: some don’t even allow students to copy from the text to paste quotes to use in in their assignments or save as a document for research purposes 

Understanding and navigating these restrictions when selecting online textbooks and course materials can be difficult. We are often asked, “why can’t we just purchase the eBook I’ve seen on Amazon for $60?” The University Library needs to purchase institutional licenses from academic vendors rather than individual consumer products, which can come with an average price of $1,200US for a 3-user copy textbook. And that’s if there’s even an institutional license available, which is not always the case. With access in mind, the Library’s Textbook Purchasing Guidelines mean that we aim to license a 3-user copy of a required online textbook, at a minimum. If your chosen text is not available as an institutionally licenced eBook, however, the policy is one print copy per 100 students. 

So, at such a high cost, why are we still using vendors who work on a model of restriction rather than access?  

We’d rather not. Traditional publishing models often leave us with limited options, but there are ways you can help us move towards using textbooks that provide more equitable access. 

There are vendors who allow full download of books – forever – and who enable an unlimited number of students to use the book at the same time. These titles are described as being DRM-free (DRM stands for “Digital Rights Management”). We’d much rather use DRM-free vendors and books so our students can access reading materials without issue. The University Library already preferences the purchase of DRM-free titles when they are available. These show in Library Search as having unlimited user access. 

But there is another step you can take: embrace the use and creation of Open Educational Resources (OERs). OER textbooks are free of all vendor access restrictions. Adopting OERs can reduce costs on students, offer more reliable and equitable access, and enable more diverse and inclusive course content. You can also adapt an existing OER textbook to make it more relevant to your course, or you could even consider publishing your own. 

If you want to know more about making your course readings more equitable, please ask us! Check in with the Library’s Learning Support team to see if there are alternative sources for the same information that will be more accessible for your students. Also, make sure you have added your required readings into the Course Readings tool in your MyUni course early, so we have more time to explore the best textbook options for your students. See our Course Readings webpage for more information. 

Tagged in ebooks, open educational resources, open access, oers