Ebooks Are not Electronic Journals

As a physical science librarian I know journals are the primary form of scholarly communication in the sciences. While the particle physicists have arXiv and some of the cool-kids will tout non-traditional knowledge transfer though social media, my chemists use journals and are pretty comfortable with that. Of course, electronic journals are greatly preferred – it’s easy to print and you can grab articles off the web and file them away for the rest of your career. No photocopying or waiting – and your graduate students can practically live in the lab.

This shouldn’t be news to any academic librarian (really, it shouldn’t be). But what might be news is the same scientists are not nearly as interested in ebooks. Ebooks take a text, put it online and allow scientists to access the information utilizing an Internet browser. So why have I had users asking me to purchase physical copies of ebooks in our collection?

Some of the problem is platform – by which I mean Ebrary. Most scientists don’t read articles online; they download them, print them, and then read. Most of the science monographs I purchase are edited works on a topic and each chapter is, effectively, like a journal article in terms of length and topic coverage. Ebrary presents the electronic text as a book and only allows users to download 60 pages as a PDF. This is a problem if you want a large review article or more than one chapter; then the ebook is suddenly less useful then a print book, because you can’t even copy it. When I polled my faculty earlier this year, some said they always prefer ebooks. But among those who conditionally preferred an ebook, all of them preferred chapters arranged as PDFs with unlimited downloads. The actual ebook – an electronic text meant to be viewed only on a screen – has very little support. So Ebrary is the main option I have for purchasing ebooks, but my patrons like Ebrary’s model the least.

Another platform problem is viewing platform; not everyone has a dedicated electronic reader to make ebooks pleasant and even if you have one, it may be a hassle to view. Ebrary for Kindles and iPads require additional software, but hey – it’s only a 14-16 step process. Without a tablet of some sort, you’re stuck with a laptop screen that cannot comfortably view a whole page at once or a desktop monitor that may be ill suited to reading. My real issue with the variety of experience ebooks provide is it makes your collection decisions inherently classist – your patrons with the wealth to afford a nice tablet have a better experience than your less privileged patrons. Print books have downsides, but using them doesn’t inherently reinforce inequality.

So as beloved as electronic journal are, I just cannot say the same for the ebook. And until the vendor platform offers ebooks my patrons want, I can’t say I’ll be buying many.

Author: Ian McCullough

Physical Sciences Librarian and Associate Professor of Bibliography at the University of Akron

5 thoughts on “Ebooks Are not Electronic Journals”

  1. That is also our experience with virtually all users … I will make exceptions for edited Wiley e-books which offer chapter downloads. The other user complaint about e-books is that they often need to use several books at one sitting.

  2. You might try having your ebooks as patron-driven (demand-driven). You might find that these same scientists will use the ebooks if they are there–we certainly have found that out. Or you can purchase more ebooks directly from the publishers so you get PDFs and not the page limits. Surveys aren’t a substitute for real-life use of ebooks.

  3. Scott – we have DDA, but I decided to leave that out of the blog post in the interest of brevity. And, just to get it out of the way, weknow how much our ebooks are being used.
    My survey was based on trying to figure out why our patrons were complaining about the ebooks. Let me clarify – scientists complaining about the ebooks acquired through DDA. The real-life use of ebooks reported to me has been one of universal complaint, so my survey was trying to figure out who DID want ebooks and why. It turns out around 20% of those polled preferred an ebook in all cases (these are chemists btw). Since we cannot identify the patrons triggering DDAs, no one knows exactly why any particular ebook is triggered. In any case, most DDA ebooks tend to not get much repeat use. My only theory is that they are acquired for an immediate need that not many others share. But for the record we have tens of thousands of ebooks and given the university’s commitment to DDA, I’m willing to let those who love the ebrary platform pick the materials for it. As for my purchases, I’m trying to serve those patrons who cannot automatically order a book on their preferred platform. And let’s be clear, if the ebooks from ebrary were like Springer’s or Wiley’s, most of my patrons would be fully delighted.
    The specific incident which led to me thinking about ebooks was a student asking me to get a physical book although we had the ebook. After talking to him and looking at the order data of the DDA, we figured out he had triggered the DDA – even though he hates ebooks. DDA is a black box – after the initial order you cannot rationally argue that any following use is done by choice or preference unless you have a physical copy, which is a non-starter budget-wise.

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