Thanks for visiting Research Information.

You're trying to access an editorial feature that is only available to logged in, registered users of Research Information. Registering is completely free, so why not sign up with us?

By registering, as well as being able to browse all content on the site without further interruption, you'll also have the option to receive our magazine (multiple times a year) and our email newsletters.

Revolutionising background research

Share this on social media:

Topic tags: 

Electronic books are becoming a hot topic in STM publishing. Siân Harris looks at the challenges and opportunities that they bring.

It’s the middle of the night. A researcher can’t sleep for thinking about her research. She is presenting her latest findings to her colleagues tomorrow but has a nagging feeling that something is missing from the explanation she plans to give about the background to her research.

What can she do? The library isn’t open at midnight and even if it was she doesn’t have time to search through shelves of books to find the handful of facts she needs to flesh out her introduction. And the journal papers that she can access online tend to focus more on results than on background theory.

Fortunately, help may be at hand. Over the past year or so the idea of electronic books (eBooks) has moved rapidly from being a barely-mentioned concept to forming an integral part of the business strategy of many science, technology and medicine publishers. Such resources can be accessed remotely by any user that is subscribed to the library’s resources. And they can often be accessed by more than one user at the same time – useful if one of our researcher’s colleagues is worrying about his presentation too and needs the same reference book.

But the advantages of eBooks go beyond access, believe publishers. They can also simplify information retrieval: users can search within books or groups of books; they can save the results of their searches and bookmark key pieces of information; and they can link from eBooks to other online resources such as peer-reviewed journals.

All this sounds ideal but it might not yet be plain sailing for our tired and worried researcher. For starters, the eBooks industry is still in its infancy, even though some major publishers already have extensive offerings. Springer started offering eBooks last August and now has over 16,000 titles available, with plans to add another 4,000 titles each year. ‘Researchers are online already so why not with books too,’ explained Olaf Ernst, Springer’s vice president for eProducts. ‘It took off very well globally and we are very satisfied.’ He added that book series are very popular as they are close to journals and that text books are also popular. He predicts that monographs will have a high impact too. ‘They contain a lot of interesting research and are likely to be more used electronically than they were in a print environment,’ he said.

Wiley currently has around 6,000 eBooks as a company – around two-thirds professional and trade; one third in science and technology and a very small number in the company’s higher education division, according to Gwenyth Jones, vice-president for publishing information systems and technology at Wiley. This is about a fifth of the 30,000 books that the company has in print (excluding Blackwell’s titles).

Meanwhile Elsevier began offering electronic versions of major reference works in 2000 and followed this with book series and handbooks. It plans to launch a trial of 500 science and technology eBooks such as monographs this May with 4,000 being available online by August or September of this year. The company’s Health Sciences Division also offers ‘E-ditions’ of 60 flagship medical reference titles.

Integration with existing journals platforms is an important component of the eBooks offerings of these publishers. Springer’s eBooks are integrated on SpringerLink, as Ernst explained, ‘Researchers care if information is relevant and trustworthy, not whether it is in a book or a journal.’ Similarly, Wiley’s science and technology books are part of Wiley InterScience and Elsevier’s science and technology books are part of its ScienceDirect platform. ‘If researchers are looking for a specific topic on ScienceDirect they will be given results in journals and books, both the latest news in journals and the substantial body of reference in books,’ said Ellen de Groot, senior product manager for ScienceDirect at Elsevier.

Most publishers are focusing their eBook plans on their frontlist. ‘We’re doing virtually all our front list but chose not to go into our backlist [in the company’s professional/trade publishing group],’ said Jones who represents that division within Wiley. ‘Some are not even available digitally, some of our titles don’t render well as eBooks and there are some situations where we do not have electronic rights for the books.’

Springer’s Ernst is more open to the possibilities of digitising backlists. ‘We don’t have concrete plans to put our backlist online but from a market perspective this could be very interesting,’ he said.


Springer's Olaf Ernst: 'Researchers care if information is relevant and trustworthy, not whether it is in a book or a journal.'


Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, however, is deliberately including its backlist from the outset. The 500 titles that will be released in May will include some dating back to 1995 and the 4,000 planned for later in the year include

all titles back to 1995, except for academic text books. ‘We saw when we added journals on ScienceDirect that the backlist was invaluable. We did lots of focus groups with librarians,’ said Juliette Goetzee, head of marketing for ScienceDirect at Elsevier. She added that the next stage will be to go further back than 1995. ‘We already have experience of that with some of our reference works,’ she pointed out.

Access choices

There is generally a choice about how to access eBooks. One option is to read them online, generally in HTML format, or an image-based format reproducing the look of the printed page. This has benefits for linking to other online resources and engaging in communities, both key advantages of eBooks, but not so great for reading large amounts of text or taking away to read elsewhere.

The other option is to download the eBook. For researchers this would generally be onto a PC or laptop but there are other devices available that are currently being marketed more to the consumer eBooks market. David Sommer, commercial director of MPS Technologies is keeping a close eye on such devices. MPS is part of Macmillan and has developed the BookStore platform that currently hosts two of Macmillan’s eBook sites. Macmillan chose to start its eBook offering with fiction titles but will follow with other eBooks.

‘The idea of eBooks is certainly one that people are excited about,’ said Sommer. He envisages handheld devices from the likes of Apple and Sony playing major roles in the wider eBook market. ‘Portable handheld eBooks are getting much better. With e-ink it is almost as clear as the printed page and battery life is getting better,’ he said. However, he conceded that portable devices might not currently be the best way to display a physics books with graphs and other diagrams.

‘It depends on the reader devices whether researchers will use them. The devices from the likes of Sony and Philips are nice but they are for a different target market,’ agreed Springer’s Ernst. ‘Researchers use PCs and laptops. They might use handheld readers in the medical market but that will still take time.’

Wiley’s Jones also believes that device choice will vary depending on the task: ‘If lab scientists just want a simple piece of information they could be happy with a very small device but to look at something more complicated with diagrams and graphs they probably need to sit at a PC – and for photographs with very high definition they may be happier with a print book.’

eBook format issues

The range of possible devices raises format issues. As with e-journals the PDF format is fairly ubiquitous. ‘As a company we are publishing mostly in Adobe eBook format, which is PDF based. We often produce quite heavily formatted pages with chemical formulae etc and PDF displays these well,’ said Wiley’s Jones.

However, this is not the situation throughout Wiley. The company’s higher education division is basing its downloadable eBooks on the VitalBooks format from VitalSource, part of Ingram Digital Ventures. ‘This is more featurerich than Adobe at the moment and in an academic context this is very useful. It allows things like highlighting and bookmarking,’ she explained. ‘VitalBooks is also much less difficult to download than Adobe, which can give an uncomfortable user experience.’

VitalBooks also has particular advantages for text books and for publishers that want to protect their investment, she added. The digital rights management for Adobe’s format allows up to five users to download one copy of an eBook. In a text book setting, said Jones, this would enable one student to buy the book and then give it to four other students for free. With so many benefits why isn’t the whole company opting for this format? The answer lies in VitalBooks’ requirement for XML. ‘The higher education division has already invested heavily in XML but it would be a higher investment for the other departments of Wiley,’ she explained.

And the format decision doesn’t end there. If the STM publishing community branches out into other eBook devices, then there will be more decisions to make. MS Reader and Mobipocket Reader are also major eBook standards – and, unsurprisingly, they are not compatible. Wiley is also investing in supporting Mobipocket Reader. Although this also has the extra cost of conversion to XML, this format is owned by Amazon, which makes it a significant standard to support.

‘I definitely see the need for the industry to converge on an eBook standard, but progress seems very slow so far’ said MPS’s Sommer. ‘Supporting multiple formats is more expensive for publishers (and ultimately readers) and users have to learn the different formats and interfaces.’

Payment models

Sommer also sees the need for industry agreement on best practices for digital rights management. ‘It is important that libraries know what they could expect in regard to any access limitations when they purchase an eBook or eBook package,’ he explained. Such discussions could be complicated with so many different ways that libraries and individuals could access eBook content. Some publishers sell individual eBooks outright, in a similar way to print-book sales, while others rent the eBooks for a period of time, more like the electronic journal subscription model. And then there might be restrictions on what they can do with the eBook: one price for access only and a different price to be allowed to download or print from the eBook. What’s more, the electronic nature of the eBooks redefines the concept of what a book contains: users might choose the whole book, just a chapter or a selection of chapters from more than one eBook. There are also packages of eBooks available – similar to the e-journal big deals – or users can pay for individual titles.

The amount of content that users get free also varies depending on the type of eBook. With novels the first chapter might be free as a marketing tool for the rest of the book but in STM publishing it is far more likely for users to just see the front and back matter and perhaps an abstract if there is to be one available, before they are asked to pay.

All these access options and different ways of picking and choosing content create challenges for monitoring usage. For e-journals the article is an obvious and consistent unit to monitor but books cover a much wider range of material types and the access options are also much more varied. The COUNTER code of practice has taken this variety into account though: its Code of Practice for eBooks asks simply that publishers account for usage at the level that they sell at so, for example, if a publisher sells at the chapter level, usage will be accounted at the chapter level too.

So how do the costs for publishers compare with print books? The general feeling is that the costs to publishers are fairly comparable. ‘With print books, printing, warehousing and distribution are major cost drivers. With eBooks, publishers have to invest in expensive content conversions to multiple non-standard formats and there are the costs of developing and operating the platforms too,’ said MPS’s Sommer.

‘The acquisition of content, payment to authors and marketing costs are the same for both electronic and print versions,’ said Wiley’s Jones.

Elsevier’s Goetzee added that a significant cost of ScienceDirect’s eBooks programme currently is in back capturing and conversion, but that in the future eBooks will be part of the same workflow as print books, although there is additional work in ensuring tagging and referencing and maintaining and updating the underlying platform. She added that there will be additional production costs in going to an XML format.

Boosting exposure

Such costs are balanced against a wider exposure for the books. Publishers are starting to find that eBook sales, although currently very small, are helping their overall sales. This is also boosted by indexing content with search tools such as Google and databases such as Scopus. ‘If people find books then it drives the overall books market,’ said Springer’s Ernst. ‘We have had good results from GoogleBooks. We get requests for 10-year-old books that are out of print because people find them on the internet.’

There are also a number of companies in this industry dedicated to aggregating and selling eBooks from a wide range of publishers. One example is MyiLibrary, part of the Ingram Digital Group, which also owns VitalSource. ‘With eBooks, delivered on an aggregated platform, the researcher can search the full text of every single title in the libraries holdings and cross reference this,’ explained MyiLibrary’s CEO James Gray. ‘The availability of content is now rising rapidly and we are sure that the use of eBooks in the research context is now entering the mainstream. They are there to be discovered and in an aggregated environment they complement electronic journal collections extremely well.’

What’s next

Early eBooks may not be all that different from print books except for their search and linking capabilities. However, publishers are starting to include more features such as video clips and other multimedia clips (such as videos of experiments or animations), calculations in maths books, simulations and quizzes that take students to relevant places in a book to find the answers.

‘We’re very much at the birth of eBooks. It will go through the terrible twos and teenage years before it reaches maturity,’ observed Sommer of MPS.

Whatever challenges eBooks may face on their journey to maturity, it seems likely that they will survive. And they have nonpublisher backing too – the UK’s JISC, for example, has earmarked £600,000 for a twoyear project to monitor and promote the use of eBooks in UK higher education.

All this leaves the question: what about print books? Is this the end of the road for them? Publishers think not. ‘The market doesn’t see it as an either/or situation. Researchers still want print books,’ said Ernst of Springer. And Wiley’s Jones agrees:

‘A print book is easier to consume cover to cover. Their resolution is far better so they are easier on eye,’ she said.

All this should give our researcher a choice: have electronic access there and then or get a good night’s sleep and choose between electronic access and physical books when the library opens in the morning.