The state of scholarly e-books today and tomorrow: Suzanne BeDell, Elsevier

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E-books play an increasingly important role in research libraries. We ask people from across the industry for their perspective on scholarly e-books today

Suzanne BeDell, managing director of Science & Technology Books, Elsevier

We’ve seen that once a critical mass of e-books is purchased by an academic library and made available via, the usage of the collection quickly grows exponentially. E-books cost less to maintain and store in a library, and deliver value by reducing cost per use in comparison to print. We have also seen that researchers value books as part of the research process; about 16 per cent of bookmarked scholarly content is to book titles and book chapters.

Last year Elsevier undertook to digitise 3,000 of our legacy titles – our Legacy Collection – which brings new life to many excellent works, some going back to the mid-20th century. If you think there is not demand for older content, think again. We’ve found that older content can be very relevant and valued when you make it easily available. We are on track to deliver over 6,000 more titles this year.

With electronic delivery, we can offer more types of content and in different ways than with print. We also want to ensure that, in a digital world, our content can be easily discovered amid the ‘noise’ that exists on the Web when users search for content. We are investing in projects around metadata enhancements that should make it simpler for users to find our content when answering a question or solving a problem. The enhancements can take many forms, such as delivering keywords and abstracts for all titles. Elsevier is also working with discovery services like Summon, Paratext and others, to help users find the right content in large institutional libraries.

Knovel, a company Elsevier recently acquired, brings an opportunity for the corporate market because of its ability to extract answers from content to support specific engineering tasks. It makes engineers’ jobs easier because it’s designed around how they think. ‘Easier and faster’ is a beneficial change for everyone.

EPUB3, with its support for HTML5, improved layout, and expanded font options, is exciting because we are now able to incorporate more interactive elements in our books. Those interactive elements go well beyond graphics, audio, video and slides. With the use of HTML5, we can include interactive elements directly in an e-book, which we previously could only do with a companion website.

Calculators, tables and spreadsheets are going to become more of the norm in e-books. Some elements will go even deeper with things like graphical tools for engineers, mathematicians and scientists incorporated. These enhancements will change the user experience and make data useable in new ways – some that we have not yet imagined. The immersive e-book is the way of the future and we’re excited to embrace it.

In the area of education, two Elsevier authors recently taught massive open online courses (MOOCs) based on their books, one with Coursera and one with edX. The challenge here is what and how much content to offer at no cost. In the first instance, Elsevier provided a static copy of the official textbook along with a special discount to purchase the book on the Elsevier Store. In the second instance, students were able to access pre-published chapters of the course’s book when they pre-ordered the title. In both cases, Elsevier saw an overall increase in sales for the titles used for and promoted through the courses.

Personally, I am not a fan of DRM. I feel the user is limited by restrictions placed on devices and how the content is used. I believe the vast majority of users are honest and truly have a need to interact with our content, which is inhibited by imposing DRM.

However, for an organisation built on intellectual property, I recognise the need to mitigate piracy risk. We are experimenting with social DRM and DRM-free content in the retail market. Our ScienceDirect platform is DRM-free, which has been widely favoured by customers. Elsevier does take a hard stance on piracy to ensure that our authors and our business are not hurt by pirated content.

We currently offer a variety of access options for books and journals on Science Direct, such as access funded by an author or sponsor, hybrid publishing options, delayed access, and manuscript posting. We also participate in MOOCs with contributed content and have ongoing conversations with thought leaders and authors on this topic. We suspect ‘open access’ books will be a movement with its own shadings that will likely differentiate it slightly from that of the journals model. We also use our e-books to give away content in developing countries.