Ebooks help tackle information mountain

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Ebooks are becoming an established and integrated part of research for many people but questions remain about formats and devices, writes Sian Harris

‘I use ebooks for work and leisure; I like them as I can carry a lot of books while travelling, but still feel awkward using them after 60 years of reading books on paper.’

This succinct response to questions about ebooks from one reader of our email newsletter, RINewsline, sums up how many researchers feel about these resources and the devices they are read on. Researchers like the compact, lightweight nature of ebook readers (one researcher, for example, commented that he buys ebooks primarily instead of titles he would have bought as hardbacks), the long battery lives, being able to read the screens on sunny or windy days and the ability to change the size of the text. ‘The quality of reading from the screen is as good as any book and you can change the font size, which makes it better than some paperbacks that have very small font size,’ was another remark.

Speed of access and availability were other attractions of ebooks for users. ‘The other day I needed a book urgently and discovered that there wasn’t a copy available in our library but I was able to obtain it straight away as an ebook,’ commented one academic. Another noted: ‘I was on a Scottish island last week and wanted to read a book that I own (in print) but didn’t have with me. Incredibly it was available as an ebook so I bought it again and read it all on my Kindle while I was there.’

However, availability can be a limitation too. As one researcher said: ‘I think my wish to own books in ebook format might be held back by the publisher not having published them yet as ebooks.’

There were some other criticisms from users. Although e-readers are primarily marketed as devices for reading ebooks, a common complaint from academics was about reading journal articles in PDF format using them. Users wanted their e-readers to be able to handle journal papers in the same way as they do ebooks: being able to change the type face or having it read aloud to them, for example. The print-style, two-column format of journal PDFs was another barrier to ease of use on the small screens of e-readers.

Then there are still some limitations with the device technology. As one person explained, ‘I don’t like the annoying flicker as it updates between pages and you can’t quickly thumb back to find a fact or figure you remember appeared earlier in the book in the same way you can with a print book.’

In addition, use of ebooks in academia, both from researchers and from students, is still fairly small. As one academic joked: ‘One of the things I like about my e-reader is that no one else has got one.’

This was also highlighted in a recent study of North American students (see news story, page 4), which found that only 13 per cent of college students had purchased an electronic book of any kind during the previous three months. Of these students only 19 per cent read them on a dedicated ebook reader; most read ebooks on laptops or desktop computers.

Content available

Despite the drawbacks and the uptake still being fairly low, the researchers who use ebooks and e-readers are generally enthusiastic about them. And there have been dramatic increases in both uptake of ebooks and the number of titles available over the past few years. A study of scholarly publishers and their book practices, carried out last year by Laura Cox on behalf of ALPSP, revealed that 63 per cent of all the responding publishers publish ebooks and 67 per cent of publishers have also retro-digitised their backlist. In addition, 69 per cent of publishers saw an increase in ebook revenue over the two years leading up to the study.

Christopher Kenneally, director of business development for Copyright Clearance Center, which licenses a wide range of electronic content, commented: ‘As ebook sales and adoption in academia surge, we have seen a corresponding rise in the number of “e-titles” we are able to license. Last year alone, we added more than a half million new e-titles to the catalogue.’

This increase in availability of ebooks is reflected in what publishers notice about their customers.

‘The response has been very positive. Ebook usage has grown significantly since we launched the programme in 2005; the usage continues to grow from 25.5 million annual downloads in 2007 to 56 million annual downloads in 2009,’ noted George Scotti, director of channel marketing at Springer.

Publishing services company, Atypon, which has developed ebook platforms for a range of publishers including Taylor & Francis and the American Chemical Society, echoes this experience: ‘We went from zero to 25,000 ebooks in three years, and 18 months from now we’ll be past 50,000,’ predicted Kevin Cohn, the company’s vice president of operations.

And Toby Green, head of publishing at OECD, said that the majority of OECD’s book business is electronic, rather than print now: ‘We started selling ebooks in 1998 and then launched a service for institutions in 2001. Usage and sales have grown steadily since. Today, income from selling books splits 70:30 in favour of ebooks:printed editions (but the ratio could be measured as 80:20 because many of our individual print sales deliver the ebook as part of the sale).’

Integrated platforms

One of the big trends in scholarly publishing recently has been to integrate ebooks with other electronic products on one platform. ‘All content is available on a single platform and textually interlinked, with the ability to search large swathes of information, even from other disciplines,’ said George Scotti about Springer’s collections. ‘Because Springer content is accessible through a single, integrated platform, all ebooks are cross-searchable with e-journals and other Springer resources, expanding the patron’s reach and increasing the collection’s value.’

Elsevier has had a similar experience: ‘The availability of books and journals on one platform is highly appreciated by both librarians and end users, because it allows users to access the information they need in one single place and this helps increase the discoverability of the books purchased by the library,’ said a spokesperson for the company. ‘Our usage trends show strong usage per chapter for newer published books and steady usage of the books contents – even 10 to 15 years after publication.’

Technology company Publishing Technology has observed a similar trend: ‘Business models are converging, with some distributors talking not just of print+electronic bundles but books+journals bundles,’ observed Mark Carden, executive vice president of global sales and marketing for the company.

Despite this convergence, there is still plenty of variety over the details of the business models for selling ebooks. ‘Librarians want a purchase model – but, for publishers, subscription models are very appealing. There are hybrids, of course – ways to keep the librarians paying while giving them perpetual access, including models like limiting the number of ebooks that can be “checked out” at any given time. Books that are checked out can remain perpetual access or they can be checked back in depending on the business model,’ summarised Kevin Cohn of Atypon.

The ALPSP study revealed that outright purchase is by far the most common business model used, followed by annual subscription. Annual subscription models become more common for aggregated ebooks.

‘Open access also features for conference and research reports,’ said Laura Cox, the author of the study.

According to the same study, sale through aggregators and vendors is the most popular route to market for scholarly ebooks, followed by the publishers’ own platform and then the hosting platform.

Formats and devices

In addition to working out business models, standardisation of ebook formats is still a challenge for ebooks. At the time of the ALPSP survey in 2009, 57 per cent of the publishers who responded used flat PDF files to create ebooks and 50 per cent provided PDFs with some imbedded functionality. Only a quarter of the publishers were creating full-text in XML and only 15 per cent were using ePub.

‘PDF is the dominant format for us in terms of demand and sales but ePub is required for some channels such as iBookstore,’ observed OECD’s Green, who added that the ePub format has problems handling the charts, tables and graphs present in the organisation’s books. What’s more, each different channel can have slightly different file-format requirements, which add to the production costs. Metadata management is another challenge, especially managing identifiers like ISBNs, he added.

‘The need to ensure that we have a standard format of ebook file, which will be compatible with the ever increasing amount of devices in the market, is also something to be aware of, commented Eloise Rigby, E-sales executive, Woodhead Publishing.

The issue of device compatibility goes beyond simply operating with the range of ebook readers available. As the North American student survey illustrated, PCs and laptops are still the main devices for reading ebooks. And that study also showed that the percentage using e-readers (19 per cent) was matched by those accessing ebooks on smartphones. A recent Outsell survey revealed that smartphone owners increasingly turn to their handheld devices for access to factual information, particularly reference, documentation and educational interests. In addition, ebooks are also becoming available on handheld games consoles like the Nintendo DS.

There are plenty of developments ahead to entice users. Recent developments in the display technology promise that soon, in addition to their long battery life and readability in sunlight, e-readers will have colour displays and be able to refresh fast enough to enable ebooks to show video. The range of devices used to access ebooks presents many challenges for content providers as they strive to meet different standards and ensure that pages display well on different-sized screens. However, the range of devices also provide more ways to drive sales of ebooks. ‘We hope that the usage of ebooks continues to increase and believe that it will. We need to make sure that we are constantly adding value to pre-existing content and enhancing the platform to make sure it is utilising the latest technologies and developments,’ said Rigby of Woodhead Publishing.

As a spokesperson for Elsevier summed up: ‘Ebooks will become a critical element in the evolving research landscape. It will be up to publishers to work together with the end users and librarians to find the best ways in which we can present that information to best fit within research workflows.’

Research Information editor Siân Harris will be speaking about some of the trends and latest developments in ebooks at the forthcoming Online Information show in London. Please email sian.harris@europascience.com to tell us about your experiences of ebooks or ebook products you sell

E-reader displays

One of the things people like about reading books on e-readers is their displays. Around 90 per cent of e-readers today use display technology from USA-based E Ink. The company began in the mid 1990s to address a simple problem: books are very readable but their content is not changeable while the content on displays like LCDs is very changeable but they are uncomfortable on the eyes because they are backlit. The need for a light behind the screen also drains power, which is a problem for mobile devices.

The first colour e-readers have recently been released using E Ink’s technology

The solution that the company came up with was to use particles of the same pigments that are used to make ink black and paper white. The displays are made of tiny microcapsules, each containing particles of the two pigments that have been given opposite electrical charges. Depending on the current applied to the microparticles either the black or white particles rise to the top and are seen by the reader. The display stays like this, without drawing any more power, until the reader ‘turns the page’. This is one of the reasons that e-readers have such long battery lives compared with other mobile devices such as smartphones.

Ebook roundup

Here are just some of the ebooks on offer from scholarly publishers. Keep an eye on www.researchinformation.info for more information about ebook products.

  • American Chemical Society publishes ebooks of over 900 titles from the ACS Symposium Series and more than 250 from its Advances in Chemistry book series.
  • Cambridge University Press publishes thousands of front and backlist titles as ebooks across the publisher’s subject areas.
  • Cengage Learning offers seven e-textbook collections, as well as the option to select either 10 or 20 textbooks from the company’s complete list of over 100 titles.
  • Elsevier’s SciVerse ScienceDirect platform has more than 13,000 monographs, reference works and volumes of series in science, technology and health sciences. These are available in collections or on a pick and choose basis. The collections are available to purchase per year of publication and there are a range of different purchasing models for libraries to choose from.
  • Emerald has two eBook Series Collections. Emerald Business, Management and Economics eBook Series Collection currently offers online access to more than 550 volumes from more than 70 book series titles. Emerald Social Sciences eBook Series Collection gives online access to more than 240 volumes from more than 35 book series titles.
  • IEEE publishes its books jointly with John Wiley & Sons. The books are published in many different formats such as ebooks, online books, Amazon Kindle and are available through IEEE Xplore, John Wiley’s web site and Amazon and other online retail outlets.
  • All OECD books, as well as those published by IEA (International Energy Agency), NEA (Nuclear Energy Agency), and International Transport Forum are available as ebooks. The organisation releases about 250 new titles a year, and has a 12-year backfile available online.
  • Ovid’s OvidSP platform includes more than 3,000 ebooks from many publishers, including 60 book collections.
  • Oxford University Press produces online editions of many of its scholarly and reference works including dictionaries, encyclopedias, general reference material and monographs in a wide range of subject areas.
  • Palgrave Macmillan publishes more than 4,000 scholarly and reference ebooks in subject collections or individually via Palgrave Connect and as part of packages from the company’s sales partners.
  • Project MUSE will offer ebook collections alongside its e-journal collections from 2011. The ebooks programme, called Project MUSE Editions, has signed contracts with at least 18 university press publishers to include books from their upcoming scholarly monograph frontlists.
  • The Royal Society of Chemistry’s RSC eBook Collection contains more than 800 chemical science books published by the RSC. In addition, the RSC Virtual Library is a collection of full text ebooks, journals and databases from various publishers and sources including Knovel, Springer, NetLibrary and Elsevier.
  • SPIE Press will have 135 ebooks at the end of 2010. In 2011, 15-20 new SPIE Press books and editions will be published first as SPIE eBooks. Integrated searching with SPIE Proceedings and SPIE Journals is possible.
  • Springer publishes more than 6,500 new books a year in a broad array of subjects. It currently has more than 40,000 ebooks online and available; including textbooks, monographs, reference works and book series.
  • Taylor & Francis’s CRCnetBASE platform has over 6,000 online books that span over 40 disciplines. In addition to ebooks published under the imprint CRC Press, CRCnetBASE also includes online references from Auerbach and Chapman & Hall.
  • Wiley has over 9,000 ebooks in a broad range of topics on its integrated Wiley Online Library platform.
  • Woodhead Publishing has digitised almost all of the books in its print catalogue and is making them available as ebooks on the Woodhead Publishing Online platform. The company also plans to launch an ebook platform for Chandos Publishing in 2011.