Deadlock between PA and academics in e-book pricing row

Deadlock between PA and academics in e-book pricing row

A row over the pricing models of academic e-books has continued, with the Publishers Association (PA) and Higher Education organisations blaming each other for a lack of movement on the issue.

The issue rose to prominence last year as the country entered into the first coronavirus lockdown and most university teaching went online. An open letter from a variety of institutions hosted by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC) called for "action to help institutions maintain their teaching and research activity during this time of crisis".

This included the removal of concurrent user or credit limits to an institution’s licensed digital content while universities were online only, as well as lifting existing contractual inter-library loan restrictions or photocopying limits. 

In February this year, the Society of College, National and University Libraries (SCONUL) and Research Libraries UK (RLUK) urged the PA and the publishers it represents “to permanently remove additional access barriers and related charges to institutions for registered students studying at a distance".

At the same time, the independent "e-book SOS" campaign has been highlighting problems with "ridiculously expensive" e-books. Speaking at the Independent Publishers Guild Spring Conference last month, Johanna Anderson, a subject librarian at the University of Gloucestershire who helped to start the campaign, said many e-books were often only available in bundles or third-party platforms and that some licences also only lasted for one year.

However, in a recent column for The Bookseller, PA c.e.o. Stephen Lotinga said library associations had “not been willing” to meet with him despite invitations. “Public events linked to this issue often are without any publisher voice and those who do speak up are met with a frosty reception,” he said.

The PA said it received a number of open letters during the pandemic that were released publicly about difficulties that Higher Education institutions were facing.

A PA spokesperson told The Bookseller: “In response to the letters we invited, on multiple occasions, those who had sent them to meet with us and our members to talk through the points raised in an effort to address them. Unfortunately, the organisations concerned have so far chosen not to take us up on that offer. Libraries remain an incredibly important partner for publishers in the provision of high-quality education resources and we remain willing to engage in constructive dialogue to try to address any concerns they may have.”

It is understood some Higher Education institutions are not convinced a meeting with the PA will be worthwhile without concrete proposals to discuss as both are already familiar with each other’s positions.

However, Ann Rossiter, executive director at SCONUL, told The Bookseller she was “surprised” to see Lotinga’s comments. She said: “We have said we would be happy to meet the PA to discuss our proposals to move the academic e-books market onto a more sustainable and fair footing once they’ve come back with a considered response.”

David Prosser, executive director at RLUK, said he supported Rossiter’s comments. A spokesperson for JISC said they were not a signatory of the letter in February and were not invited to a meeting with the PA.

They added: “If JISC was to be formally invited to join a meeting, then of course we’d be happy to consider that as we welcome constructive engagement on this matter.”