'Price gouging from Covid': student ebooks costing up to 500% more than in print

<span>Photograph: Tony French/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Tony French/Alamy

Librarians at UK universities say students’ reading lists for this term are being torn up because of publishers’ “eye-watering” increases to ebook prices, and some students are now reading what is available or affordable, rather than what their tutors think is best for their course.

With thousands of students studying in their bedrooms at home because of the pandemic, providing access to textbooks and research books online has become crucial. However, librarians say academic publishers are failing to offer electronic versions of many books, seen as critical to degree courses during the pandemic. And, they say, universities frequently cannot afford to buy the ebooks available, for which they can be charged more than five times as much as the printed version, often running into hundreds of pounds a copy, sometimes for one user at a time.

Nearly 3,000 librarians, academics and students have now signed an open letter calling for a public investigation into the “unaffordable, unsustainable and inaccessible” academic ebook market.

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Johanna Anderson, subject librarian at the University of Gloucester and one of the authors of the letter, says: “Publishers are manipulating the market and price gouging from Covid. We are trying to support students during an unprecedented public health crisis and they are making it so much harder. It is a scandal.”

Examples librarians have given include an education textbook called An Integrated Play-based Curriculum for Young Children, published by Routledge, offered to libraries for £36.99 in print but for £480 for an ebook that can only be read by one student at a time. The cost to libraries for one business studies book, Fundamentals of Corporate Business, published by McGraw Hill, was £65.99 in print and £528 as a single user ebook.

Libraries say they have struggled with high ebook prices and lack of availability for years, but the problem has come to a head during the pandemic because students urgently need digital resources.

Anderson reports that publishers introduced price rises for ebooks for libraries at the start of 2020, often alongside changes to licences that meant instead of numerous students being able to access an online book simultaneously, only one student would be able to read it at a time.

Although several publishers offered free access to many ebooks in the first lockdown in March, this was withdrawn in June.

Anderson says ebooks costing more than 500% more than print versions are “not exceptions, but the prices I have come to expect to see”.

Publishers are adamant that they have been supporting universities and students and not trying to profit from them in the pandemic. They insist their pricing is fair, and say ebooks are not comparable to print books because they can be used in different ways, with extra features, and are shared widely throughout the university.

Caroline Ball, subject librarian at the University of Derby, says one reason librarians are angry is that academic publishing is one of the most lucrative industries in the world, with unusually high profit margins, estimated at around 40%.

She says: “Academics typically write, review and edit publications like journals and textbooks, and they are often not paid for that. Charging their universities huge amounts of money to access these books in a digital format in a pandemic is surely unfair.”

Anderson is getting emails every day from students who cannot find the books they need online, and says she is having sleepless nights worrying about them being unable to access the books they need for dissertations or revision. “They are starting a new semester with new modules and new reading lists, but so many books aren’t available electronically or cost too much for us to buy,” she says.

The librarians also complain that some publishers tie libraries into expensive subscriptions or package deals to purchase some of the most popular academic books digitally. “You have to pay thousands for a package with a few ebooks you need and lots of things you don’t,” says Anderson. “It’s like if Waterstones said ‘you can have this novel but you have to buy the whole shop’. It’s outrageous.”

Rachel Bickley, senior academic liaison librarian at London Metropolitan University, wonders why it costs so much more to produce an electronic version of a book. She asks: “What is all this extra money going on?”

Bickley says the ebook crisis is affecting all subjects, but some more than others. On some science courses, she says, there are core texts that “simply aren’t available” to students studying at home. “Since the summer, academics have been trying to redo their reading lists so they are more accessible to students who can’t get into the library,” she says. “But they send these lists through to us to check and a lot of the time ebooks aren’t available or only at an eye-watering price.”

Bickley says libraries across the UK are having to tell lecturers to rewrite course reading lists because they can no longer afford them. “We are seeing academics having to put together reading lists based on what is available, rather than on what they actually think students most need to read. This just isn’t acceptable.”

Graham Edgar, professor of psychology and applied neuroscience at the University of Gloucester, says: “I have had to take some of the textbooks off my reading list as I can’t justify having them on there. It will cause too much stress if the students can’t access the books they need via the library. Some students buy textbooks themselves but there are vast numbers who can’t afford to do that.”

Paul Ayris, pro vice-provost for library services at University College London, says he has had to spend an extra £3m during the pandemic to buy enough ebooks for UCL’s 48,000 students, an investment he agrees other institutions may not be able to afford. UCL’s librarians have been working through several thousand reading lists, repeatedly having to tell academics that the books they want students to read cannot be accessed electronically, or cost too much money.

The university is so exasperated by what Ayris calls “the scandal of ebooks”, that it has just decided it will begin publishing its own open-access textbooks. “This is a direct response to this crisis,” he says. “We are fed up with paying these prices when our academics are writing the textbooks. In the future, universities need to club together and take control of their own publishing.”

The Guardian approached the Publishers’ Association but it declined to comment.

A spokesperson for Taylor Francis, which owns Routledge, says: “Comparing individual print costs to a digital licence does not represent the reality of how the different formats are used, nor the additional functionality etextbooks provide. We believe our etextbooks, which are sold on a title-by-title basis and not in bundles, are fairly and competitively priced for the library market.

“We recognise the current particular challenges that libraries are facing in providing remote access to materials, and will continue to support their needs during the pandemic and beyond.”

He said that the publisher had provided free etextbooks to students as well as free upgrades to libraries from single to multi-reader licences for the 2020 summer term.

A spokesperson for McGraw Hill said the company would be making more titles available as ebooks “as quickly as we can”.

“Since the pandemic started, we have undertaken a number of initiatives to help students and educators transition smoothly to online learning situations. In spring 2020, we provided free access to ebooks and our digital courseware solutions to more than 65,000 students and supported 500-plus instructors to help them transition online in the UK and Europe alone.”

He said McGraw Hill was “deeply focused on affordability in higher education”, adding that “in the US and elsewhere, the average cost of course materials for students has been declining steadily for more than a decade, which is a great thing”.