E-books – unconference session at SOLO10

I led a session looking at ebooks for researchers at SOLO10 earlier this month. I gave a brief overview and then opened up the discussion to the floor. About 10 people attended the session – it seems ebooks are not a favourite topic among science online types!
My thoughts
In a scientific research library books are very much the poor relation. I spend no more than 2% of my consumables budget each year on purchasing books; journals assume a much higher priority and eatt up most of my budget. Libraries which support students and healthcare, or which have a different subject focus, may have different experiences but in biomedical sciences researchers have relatively little interest in books. Or so we think.
However, Elsevier say that 25% of the citations in Scopus are to books, and that the most cited work in the database is a book (Maniatis’ Molecular Cloning). Now, many of those book citations are probably to book series that could also be categorized as journals, so 25% is maybe an overstatement. Methods books are another special case and many have already migrated to database form (think Current Protocols, Springer Protocols, Nature Protocols). Many reference books too are migrating to databases (e.g. Encyclopedia of Life Sciences). But there is still a large swathe of books – monographic works – that are perhaps of use to researchers and stubbornly in book form.
Over 20 years ago we saw bibliographic databases go digital and become tools that anyone could use easily. This transformed their pattern of use and made them tools that people use several times a day, rather than a few times a year. Then 15 years ago we saw the first really usable ejournals and within a few years the way people used journals was transformed. Books are taking longer to find their digital feet but I predict that once they do we will see similar changes in patterns of use, amongst scientific researchers. Defing what it means to “find their digital feet” is not straightforward though.
JISC ran a large-scale project looking at ebook usage – the e-book observatory This was a massive project, with over 50,000 responses, but it focused on students and their lecturers, making a small collection of only 36 textbooks available for them to use. The project gathered useful information about usage behaviours – browsing, dipping, skimming seem to be very common. Though they did have responses from research staff too this by no means represents a realistic research resource and doesn’t tell us much about the needs of researchers.
Highwire Press is a company based within Stanford University Library. They were pioneers in developing ejournals for researchers. Highwire produced a report earlier this year looking at ebooks, and what librarians thought their users wanted. It didn’t reveal anything startling but they are planning to follow up with more research.
My own view, based on no research at all, is that a useful ebook service for researchers should comprise: a large collection of ebooks, totally searchable in full text and easily addressable at the chapter level. It needs to be large in volume and broad in subject scope, then you can have a good chance of finding an answer to any question. The search should not be a simplistic search, but something that helps you to identify the best place to really find that answer.
We also need models of purchase or licensing that allow an ebook to be used from a PC with an online connection and/or to be downloaded onto any suitable portable device for use. It should be possible to print sections conveniently if desired. Digital Rights Management should not interfere with reasonable use patterns. And of course this needs to be at an affordable price. We also need the model of provision to allow libraries to lend out ebooks, or portions of ebooks, to their users. Note that CrossRef now allocate DOIs to book chapters and this may increase interest in and the accessibility of individual parts of books.
Google Books is an interesting project and may be a hazy glimpse into the future, though they need to improve some aspects of their indexing and metadata. Of course we also have to hope that the Google Books Settlement will one day reach a form that can be agreed by all parties.
Someone commented to me earlier at SOLO10 that ebooks are an unborn innovation, meaning that they are a solution in search of a problem. I don’t believe that. I can see real benefits to ebooks (increased searchability, increased portability, increased accessibility) but they have been a long time coming. A recent news item about the University of Texas at Austin’s Engineering library – with 425,000 ebooks – suggests that ebooks are beginning to make an impact.
It took quite a while for ejournal articles to be anything other than just online versions of paper articles, and most online articles are indeed still just that. As ebooks mature we will see authors being more adventurous in creating digital works with links and updates and interactivity. We may see new publishing outfits and new publishing models emerge. We may even see the disintegration of the idea of a book as a useful representation of knowledge. I was interested recently to see a similar comment from Hugh McGuire on his blog .
A representative from Cold Spring Harbor Press (publishers of that Maniatis book) kicked off the discussion, pointing out that I had rather glossed over the financial aspects of ebooks. He said that the last edition of Maniatis in 2001 had sold 55,000 copies. They have been working for several years on a new edition of the book and he estimated it had cost them up to US$600,000, which will need to be recouped in sales. I confessed that I didn’t have any easy answers. However, Maniatis is one book that any institute engaged in molecular biology will absolutely need access to, so I think they know they will not lose out with that one.
Someone commented that ebooks are currently overpriced, and that lower prices would lead to higher sales. I wondered whether the growth of sales of chapters might help there – you could buy a small part of a book that was of interest for a much lower price than the whole book.
The roles of Amazon and Apple in selling ebooks was mentioned, along with their incompatibility – seen as a bad thing. A publisher noted that publishers will work with whoever they have to in order to sell books and make a profit.
Some scepticism was expressed about the value of publishers. One of the publishers present stated that their role is to help readers discover authors of interest; promotional work is a key function of publishers. As a librarian, the branding of certain publishers and series is likely to influence my purchasing decisions too, as a mark of quality.
Another person mentioned they had recently been involved in a multi-author work that was selling for GBP £150. He noted that the authors were not paid for their input, and he felt it had been a waste of his time as few people would ever purchase the book at that price.
This brought home to me that I need to understand how the market for writing and publishing scholarly books really works. Stevan Harnad talks about research articles as the “give-away literature” and stresses that Open Access only works because the prime interest of authors of articles is to get maximum readership. I wonder how far this may also be true of some books.
One person suggested that people like to borrow books because a) they are expensive and b) they are bulky. Perhaps the advent of ebooks will remove the need to borrow.
Another person was keen on the idea that he could ask his University library to download books or chapters that he wanted onto his ebook reader, and then delete them again when he had finished. A librarian from a USA university confirmed that this was already happening.
Finally, I mentioned updates to ebooks. Some have the idea that an electronic version of a book can be always up-to-date as an electronic format makes it easy to amend. This rather overlooks the intellectual effort required. I suspect that most authors really do not want to have to produce regular updates to a book once it is published, and certainly not for free. I did wonder whether a move to semantic publishing might make this more feasible, but that is not currently a realistic proposition.
I’m sure there was more discussion, but that’s as far as my notes and memory extend.
I hope ebooks will soon become a part of our science online world. See you at SOLO11!

About Frank Norman

I am a retired librarian. I spent 40 years working in biomedical research libraries.
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5 Responses to E-books – unconference session at SOLO10

  1. Martin Fenner says:

     Frank, thanks a lot for the post. eBooks is a topic that I find very interesting, but haven’t really thought about. Have you looked at PaperC, a German startup that let’s you read books online for free and charges you by the number of pages you print?

  2. Nicholas Morris says:

    Some interesting points.  I was one of the 10 present and also disappointed by the low turnout.  I have also written a ‘reply’ to your post (and expanded on some of your comments) over at the BGM Blog – SOLO10 (Science Online 2010) and eBooks – the future?

  3. Frank Norman says:

    Martin – no, I haven’t heard of them but I like that kind of experimenting with different models. We need to find out what will work and flexibility has to be the byword.
    Nicholas – thanks, I will have a look when I get back to my desk.  I wasn’t really disappointed at the turnout; I think it is still early days but I do believe things are changing and we will see more interest soon.

  4. Frank Norman says:

    Wirded Science reports that a US foundation is preparing a new biology textbook called Life on Earth that will be all-digital, online and free. The first chapter, on cell division, will be going live in a fwe weeks’ time. The director of the project says  that completing the book, in 59 chapters, laced with high-end interactive animations and video interviews with Nobel laureates, could cost as much as $10 million.  “No publisher is doing what we’re doing, which is developing, from scratch, a serious digital textbook".
     Perhaps this is a sign of the future. 

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