Monday, October 19, 2009

First thoughts on: Jamali, Nocholas & Rowlands, Scholarly e-books, the views of 16,000 academics

Aslib Proceedings: New Information Perspectives 61.1 (2009): p33-27. doi: 10.1108/00012530910932276 (University of Illinois Access)

Why should you read this:

The folks working on this study (multiple publications spanning several years) really are on the ball, both in terms of the background reading/lit cited, as well as the focus of their research. If you are at all interested in the scholarly use of e-books, you must read this article. And, just FYI, I don't just say that about every article from these authors or this particular study. :)

In brief:

This study is part of the "JISC National E-Books Observatory project… a… project in which over 120 UK universities receive two years free access to course reading materials in e-book form… publishers were paid £600,000 for 36 textbooks for a period of two years. The books were supplied on two platforms: Wolters Kluwer Health and MyiLibrary." p. 34 This study "aims to find out about the perspective of students and academics… on e-books. The paper provides an analysis of two open-ended questions about e-books… 'In your opinion, what were the biggest advantages that e-books offered compared with a printed book?' and 'Is there anything that you want to add regarding course texts, print or electronic, or about your university library?'…conducted between 18 January and 1 March 2008… response from more than 20,000 academic staff and students; 16,000 free-text responses. The study discloses… online access along with searchability was the biggest advantage of e-books… however, e-books have yet to become more student-friendly by improving features such as printing and screenreading." p.33 & p36

Interesting quotes and my thoughts:

"E-book publishing has been growing rapidly and the International Digital Publishing Forum (Industry eBook Sales Statistics, 2005) reports a 23 per cent increase in e-book revenues in 2005 compared to 2004 and a 20 per cent increase in e-book titles published year-on-year." p. 33

Ahh, IDPF, how you love to toss around some numbers to show that "the e-book era is right around the corner, no, this time for real!" :P Yes, e-book sales have been growing at a fairly rapid pace when compared only to previous e-book sales. But when set amidst total book sale revenue (e-book and print combined or contrasted) to date we have yet to see e-books account for even a double digit % of the share or revenue for book sales (that's tight, even with the Kindle out there, last years overall revenue for book sales turned up e-books at <2% of the revenue share). But when you only account for about 1% of the industry (about what estimates peg e-books sales at right now, plus or minus a few tenths of a percent), even with annual average growth of 25% (good numbers for growth for any industry), that it would take 17-18 years for e-books to hit the tipping point, gaining more than 50% market share and making printed books use the minority delivery mechanism for books. Now, that's not to say I don't see the writing on the wall, and that change is coming, but I think some key elements are missing from (1) the hardware end of things (device ubiquity and appropriateness for reading books) as well as vendor/distribution/functionality issues (see my forthcoming article about e-books and upcoming blog post on the Kindle for more details).

"The fact that 89.1 per cent of our respondents managed to get to the end of a quite long and complex questionnaire is a clear indication of the level of interest within the academy in e-books. We received responses from 123 universities before the questionnaire was switched off." p. 35-36

"The results of the quantitative part of the survey were analyzed and published elsewhere (Nicholas et al., 2008); presented here are the findings of two open-ended questions, which were included in the survey… While the questionnaire was open to both staff and students the respondents to these two questions were almost wholly students." p. 36

"Clearly the main attraction is that e-books are more accessible than print books, meaning that users can get at them wherever they are and at whatever time they like. This reason accounts for more than 52 per cent of the advantages mentioned… Of the online access comments, 1,000 specifically cited the fact that e-books can be accessed from a distance and that the user does not have to travel to the library in order to use them… About 500 comments were related to availability – 24/7 access to e-books " p. 36

One of the comments the authors choose to include for this section (out of 3 examples) was particularly interesting to me, "It's always available – if you have a web connection." p. 37

"The greater retrieval opportunities provided by e-books were the second most mentioned characteristic (13.2 per cent). This rises to 15.4 per cent if we include navigation." p.37

"Cost was the only other advantage to reach double figures (10.8 per cent). All comments related to… e-books being free and cheaper. Clearly there is confusion here in the minds of students of what constitutes free. Some illustrative comments follow: A lot of the e-books are free of charge. Cheaper than buying the book. Didn't have to buy it." p. 37

This is very interesting, since the books they are "comparing" these too are library print book collections, both of which are "free" at the point of use to them. If you discount this category (because there' a lot of confusion on this aspect among respondents) then there are really only two far-reaching reasons that are widely felt to be the strengths of e-books- availability and searchability. This needs to be considered in light of the next finding…

"Portability… Portable is not a word you would associate with e-books but quite a few (5.3 per cent) mentioned this quality. They were said to be "lighter" than printed books and they did not have to be carried around. Here some students clearly have downloadable e-books in the form of PDF in mind while none of the e-textbooks provided through the project were downloadable. Some illustrative comments follow: Easier to carry around – on ipod. No weight. Portability - I can take a lot of books on a single computer, memory card, external hard drive. Portable, we do not have to carry big books from one place to another, useful for international students." p. 38

So either the respondents were thinking about other e-books/e-documents they do this with (download/ save to a device), found ways to circumvent the platform based restrictions on downloading these books (I know I've done that, with NetLibrary materials in particular), or assumed they would be able to do that, but hadn't tried before they took the survey. My money is on the last category. I feel that most web users assume there is some mechanism whereby they can save web content for later offline viewing (and it really sticks in my craw that more e-book vendors still refuse to facilitate this type of use).

"The biggest disadvantage by far was thought to be the difficulties of reading from the screen. About 366 (7.6 per cent) respondents complained about the difficulty of screenreading." p. 41

"There are many users who would prefer hard copies to e-books. About six per cent of the respondents stated that they preferred hard copy books in normal situations." p. 41

"According to the responses there seems to be a lack of activities for promoting e-books on the librarians' side. About 195 (4.05 per cent) comments indicated the need for better promotion of e-books among students and lecturers. 'Better communication between course leaders and library staff, better flagging of e-resources, both on library sites and in course handouts needed in order that their use is maximized… I don't really know anything about electronic sources, so it would be better if the librarians were more forthcoming in telling the students about them.'" p. 42

"There was also a lack of knowledge about how to access and use e-books and e-resources and this highlights the need for instructions and the improvement of information literacy programmes at universities: 'I could do with a course on how to access these things as I am not very technically minded I don't know how to access the e-books… I don't think that there is enough emphasis on lecturers and tutors explaining to students HOW to use all the various applications in the library. I had to teach myself about these, a seminar for all those interested might be of help.'" p. 41

Ah, here we are again. Getting access to e-books, and then once you have it, navigating them, still remains a challenge to some. And why is that? Many of my colleagues blame themselves ("we're not doing enough to teach people about e-books and how to use them") but I personally blame terrible, atrocious user-interface design from the vendors themselves. When was the last time you had to teach a university student the basics of how to use a web browsers and search engine (basics here, not best practices :P )? I know I can only dimly remember that time. And why is it that students can figure out the web, including library access to e-journals, but not w-books? I propose that it is because the access mechanisms to e-books are horrid. Okay, the library catalog/major access mechanism to library materials shares a little of the blame here, but I point my finger mostly at the actual platforms e-books are being provided on. Usually for "good" reasons (DRM , copyright, keep your dirty pirate student mitts off our content reasons) the interfaces themselves attempt to stop users from accessing and manipulating content in ways they are familiar with. Vendors and publisher, this message is rfor you: stop it! Okay, a quick side not to Springer and Morgan & Claypool- disregard my last comment, you are already doing things right (well, at least far better than the rest of the industry).

"Printing problems… Students wanted to be able to print part of the e-books they read, whether to read them at their convenience or highlight and annotate them. About 60 (1.3 per cent) respondents complained (a relatively small number it has to be said) about problems with printing, either they did not allow this or there were restrictions. Also about 18 (0.37 per cent) respondents expressed that they wanted to be able to print sections of e-books easily." this quote in particular is representative, in my experience, of one of the biggest gripes about e-books "E-books are useful. My main gripe with them is the way in which you print them off. I have tried to print out whole chapters and cannot do this, I do not know why. Instead I have had to print out groups of pages and then put them together to form the chapter. This is annoying and makes accessing e books more tedious and time consuming that it otherwise might be. However, on the whole I think they are a useful addition to hard copy books" p.43

I wonder if more students would have reported problems with this if they had had more e-books to use. I rarely found myself needing to quote from a core course text-book. Given that these limited (36) books were core text-books, I doubt many users tried to copy/paste or print much of the book. I know when I was an undergrad student I was particularly likely to skim/speed-read the core texts for a course- they were too often just poorly written, dry, and ponderous. On the other hand, when I was reading my own supplementary materials (that I selected to address a topic I was working on for a course project) that was when I engaged in extensive close/deep reading, note-taking, highlighting, copying, etc. I would love to see a follow-up to this study, if the data is available, on how often users actually engaged the features (or triggered the limitations) on copy/paste and printing for these 36 books/two platforms. My guess is not many, given how many students (inaccurately) reported that one great feature of these books was the ability to store them on their portable devices (something not enabled/allowed by either platform).

"A supplement not a substitute… About 67 (1.4 per cent) comments were in some way related to the fact that e-books and printed books should co-exist. Users found different and supplementary applications for e-books and hard copy and wanted to benefit from both. Students do not want to see an exclusivity of formats. There was also concern that some university libraries considered e-books a good alternative or substitute and therefore replaced printed books with e-books. Some were concerned that the move towards the provision of more e-books means cutting the number of hard copy books in libraries." p.44