The Challenge of ebooks in Academic Institutions

Project report. May 2013


The goal of the “Challenge of ebooks…”project is to help orientate senior institutional managers (our primary audience) and to support institutions in the effective adoption and deployment of ebooks and ebook technology. As a consequence the project helps to support the wider ambition to enable improvements in the quality and impact of teaching, learning and research and meet rising staff and student expectations.

The project takes a Higher Education institution standpoint that is inclusive and not limited, for example, to the library or to teaching and learning. It builds on the wide ebook expertise and experience of Jisc and Jisc Collections. The project was supported by and the outputs co-designed with, experts in the sector (including the project team and our formal ‘stakeholders‘).

Project deliverables are centred on delivering guidance to institutional managers on the challenge of ebooks in academic institutions. This means enabling managers, with varying levels of expertise, to navigate through what can be complex issues. We have therefore created a layered approach that moves from easily digested, very visual, summaries in the form of infographics, to more in depth content.  Our infographics provide easy to use, effective overviews of the key issues. They link to, and are supported by, a wiki based website that enables users to easily drill down to get more detail. Much of this detail is taken from existing Jisc resources (notably the recent (November 2012) JISC TechWatch report: ‘Preparing for Effective Adoption and Use of Ebooks in Education‘). These resources are supplemented by a number of focused and relevant case studies undertaken as part of the project. A full list of outputs is available on the project website.

Issues and findings

The challenge

At present, for academic institutions, the ebook paradigm largely remains one of PDF format ebooks consumed using PCs. This is now dissolving. The ebook landscape is changing rapidly, driven to a large extent by developments in ebook readers and tablet devices which have enabled better ways to consume econtent. This trend has been most acute in trade publishing where the combination of relatively low cost reading devices like the Kindle and a pervasive discovery and delivery platform (Amazon) has had a dramatic increase in the consumption of ebooks.  The pattern is being replicated for scholarly communication albeit less dramatically.  It is not simply a question of technology per se but is also one of changing business models. Open access is a major theme for scholarly communication and is a driving factor in the institutional creation of ebooks. Libraries still play the largest role in the curation (management) of ebooks in academic institutions and are confronting a major challenge to the notion of a ‘collection’. A business model such as Demand (Patron) Driven Acquisition (DDA) encourages a shift to libraries providing access to content without necessarily owning it. There is a danger that the pace of, largely consumer driven, change will leave institutions behind. At the 2013 UKSG conference a medical student described how he had moved to a completely digital ‘ecosystem’ delivered through his iPad. A major component of his personal ecosystem consists of ebooks. However this highly effective solution is acquired and paid for wholly outside library and institutional provision.

The opportunity

After some deliberation the stakeholder group summarized the opportunity of ebooks in the following way: ‘Cost effective content that can be easily discovered, delivered anywhere, at any time to a variety of user friendly devices for consumption and reuse.’ The neatly sidesteps of course the definition of an ebook. This is deliberate. A long lasting definition will prove elusive. A book is very much defined by is instantiation in print technology. As content become digital the ‘binding’ breaks down. We are beginning to see ebooks move from PDF to new formats encompassing enhanced content including aspects of pedagogy such a tests and revision aids.

The key themes

The work has been guided by three core ebook themes – creation, curation and consumption.


From a technical point of view ebooks are remarkably easy to create. There are a variety of ebook creation platforms available, some of them free. At the moment, from an institutional point of view, ebook creation is generally about re purposing existing content. This might be Open Educational Resources (OER) as exemplified in the University Nottingham case study or reformatting content created thought the existing print book process as with the Manchester University Press case study. We expect to see more born digital ebook content as the market matures.

One of the opportunities is for institutions to embrace open content and access. This enables content that is not only easier to discover but also easier to consume and re-use. It differentiates institutional ebook creation from much (though not all) of the current scholarly ebook publishing especially textbooks. There are skill gaps to address not only in terms of technology but perhaps more importantly in terms of publishing attributes including commissioning content, editing, marketing and rights management. The latter can still be an issue even with nominally open, third party content. Another key factor is ensuring ebooks are designed from the outset to provide a good experience for disabled users. Institutional creators perhaps have a special responsibility here.


Libraries play a major role in the curation (management) of ebooks. But this position is being challenged, albeit only peripherally at present. Textbooks have always been a mixed economy where student bought resources are supplemented by the library. Commercial providers certainly see opportunity to go direct to end users or to provide course solutions directly to academics. These approaches are likely to lead to an increasing disaggregation of ebook content into smaller but coherent elements (‘chapters’ if we are to continue the language of the print book). This will present challenges, for example in how content is cited by users.

New approaches such as Demand Driven Acquisitions have exposed the inadequacies of the library systems used for management or ebook resources just as ejournals had done from the turn of the century. A new generation of library services platforms is emerging to address these issues but at the time of writing event the most developed of these systems remain at an ‘early adopter’ stage.


One of the major changes within scholarly communication in the last decade of so has been a transition from print to electronic resources. Ejournals are now the norm. The transition from print to ebooks is taking longer to reach critical mass despite potential in terms of discovery, access and portability. It is only as reading devices have improved that ebooks have been able to really meet the key consumer criterion of convenience. We can now expect the pace of change to quicken, not only in terms of improvement to the user experience itself but also in terms of business models. New commercial ebook platforms such as Inkling are taking the opportunity of tablet devices such as the iPad to exploit enhanced content to deliver a much improved reader experience.”We work with publishers and authors directly to carefully rebuild their content to take full advantage of the learning potential of iOS devices and the web.” These recent changes will no doubt overcome some of the barriers to ebook adoption by users that have been reported in much research on ebook usage to date. This presents a challenge for the institutional creation and curation of ebooks to deliver dramatically improved ebook experience, from discovery, access and consumption that can compete in a diverse and competitive market.

Ways forward

Many saw 2012 as year of the tipping point for trade ebooks. Academic ebooks are perhaps just a few years behind. This then is a good time for Jisc and Jisc collections to work with institutions to help shape how ebooks can be best created and curated. We suggest a focus on the following areas:-

Focus on the user

In looking at ways to deliver innovative and potentially disruptive new services many businesses have adopted rigorous methodologies to meet the needs of user. Academic institutions could benefit from taking a similar approach. In the project we made partial use of the well know ‘Jobs-To-Be-Done’ (JTBD) methodology.  More extensive use of this or similar approaches could be very effectively in helping to deliver new institutional ebooks products and services. Importantly JTBD not only provides a way to identify existing and unmet needs but also provides way to ‘test’ the ability and extent of actual or proposed solutions to meet those needs. As mentioned above meeting the needs of disabled users is also an area where institutions can make a special contribution and where there is already considerable expertise in the sector.

Share knowledge and experience

The project website makes a small start, notably in the case studies, in sharing experience. However we were unable to locate a single, simple resource that registered, for example, institutional initiatives in ebook creation. There is obvious scope for the project website to be developed in this way.

The  (March 2013) ‘Creating ebooks workshop’ is a good example of what can be done in terms of sharing experience and developing expertise. There is particular scope to go beyond the technology to explore issues such as editing and marketing skills to deliver the user experience. In short Jisc can help create a much stronger capacity within the domain to create and curate ebooks.

Joining up library, leaning technology and teaching staff

Ebooks present a great opportunity for library, learning technology and teaching staff to work together to address a major challenge and opportunity. Such joined up working could alleviate situations where ebooks creation takes place with little liaison with those involved in curation.

Share the load with other sector bodies

There is wide and growing interest in ebooks and opportunity for Jisc to work with other bodies such as UKSG which represent the whole scholarly communication community. This project was given a brief to take an institutional stance but this cannot be done in isolation from what is going on in the commercial market. Unlike trade publishing where the institutional market is very small, the academic publishing market is one that is powerfully influenced by institutions. The open access movement is just one example of that. Working together will enable institutions to maximize their influence and shape how the overall academic ebook market develops.

Ken Chad Project lead