Publisher blocks access to ebooks; students, faculty scramble
At George Washington University this fall, 269 students enrolled in a geography class were supposed to have free access to their course textbook, An Introduction to Human-Environment Geography: Local Dynamics and Global Processes, via a link on the course’s Blackboard site. But when many clicked on the link, the book was unavailable.
The book’s publisher, Wiley, had withdrawn the book, along with more than 1,300 other ebooks, from ProQuest Academic Complete, a large multidisciplinary ebook collection to which the university had a paid subscription. The change took effect on the last day of August, right before the start of fall classes. As a result, librarians and faculty members in the United States and beyond have scrambled to identify alternative textbook options for their students.
Librarians and professors said the decision would have a direct, negative impact on students’ ability to afford college and access learning materials.
“We condemn Wiley’s lack of consultation with libraries, the suddenness of this move and the timing, which has caused high levels of disruption at the beginning of the new academic year,” a statement from a group of Irish librarians said. “Libraries have had to embark on time-consuming efforts to urgently liaise with faculty, amend reading list collections, find alternatives, get pricing information and investigate new procurement options, all at a time when we should be orientating new students who are settling in to the first normal academic year after an extremely difficult period during the pandemic.”
Faculty and staff members at George Washington had a similar experience. ProQuest had notified the library in the summer that the geography book and other books would no longer be available as ebooks, according to Geneva Henry, the university’s dean of libraries and academic innovation. That notice, however, was insufficient, as many instructors had already planned their courses in the spring without anticipating a need to revisit their syllabi. Few, if any, expected the book to be removed from the library’s ebook collection on short notice.
“Wiley seems to have targeted for removal those titles in a shared subscription package that received high usage,” a George Washington webpage about the news said.
When a publisher like Wiley removes a title from ProQuest’s ebook collection, ProQuest typically offers libraries the option of purchasing the ebook. That option, however, is not possible for textbooks such as the one that the George Washington geography students needed, as Wiley does not sell textbooks—print or digital—to libraries.
“Textbooks are an area where we see a lot of predatory behavior by the publishers, because they know they’ve got students on the hook,” Henry said. “Students have to have the textbook.”
The George Washington library has since located and placed one print copy of the book on reserve that the 269 students may check out. Alternatively, individual students can purchase their own print book (for $106.95 on the publisher’s website or at another other bookseller) or ebook (for $43 on the publisher’s website). At the time of publication, used copies of the title were also available for $19.99.
In addition to increasing the amount students spend on books, Wiley’s move is also likely to inhibit access. When the geography book was part of the ebook collection, all 269 George Washington students could have used it at the same time, such as the night before a big exam, and all could have done so from any location where they had internet access. That’s because ProQuest’s Academic Complete offers unlimited, multi-user access to books in the collection.
Wiley’s removal of more than 1,300 books, many of which are in high demand, is “not equitable,” said Steven Bell, associate university librarian at Temple University. “Some students have the luxury of being able to come to the library and sit and read a book for two hours. Other students don’t have that time in their lives. They’re off campus, or they’re mostly studying online.”
Wiley declined to respond to questions, though Ed Colby, senior manager of global communications at Wiley, offered a brief statement in an email.
“Wiley is working to provide solutions to those customers who experienced inconvenience as a result of the transition,” the emailed statement said without detailing the company’s efforts to help those affected. The statement also did not explain why the company made the decision.
Wiley added 1,380 ebooks to the ProQuest package in June before withdrawing the 1,380 books in question in August, according to the statement. It did not offer insight into how demand for the withdrawn books compared with demand for the added books.
“It’s challenging to work with a vendor who does not share our values,” Henry said. “A key part of inclusion is affordability. Colleges are not cheap—even the most affordable colleges are not cheap. When you add in the cost of the learning materials, you impact students’ ability to pursue their true interests, and you really start creating a have and have-not kind of environment.”