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Since late August, academic librarians in the U.S. and abroad have been scrambling to identify alternative textbook options for students and instructors after a major publishing company pulled a large amount of e-book and e-textbook titles from circulation.Over the summer, Wiley Publishing Company removed approximately 1,380 multidisciplinary titles from university ebook collections vendor ProQuest. A Wiley representative told Motherboard that the publishing company had informed ProQuest that the e-books would be transitioned out of the Academic Complete—an online digital library that libraries can subscribe to for a lower cost—in June 2020, but that the change was delayed to August 2022 to provide the vendor time to notify libraries and for them to adjust.
“Nonetheless, many customers were caught off guard by the removal,” Ed Colby, Wiley’s senior manager of global communications, told Motherboard. “We sincerely apologize for any disruption this may have caused students, instructors, and libraries.” ProQuest did not respond to Motherboard’s requests for comment.Shortly after this article was published, Wiley announced that it plans to restore access to the digital textbooks."After listening to customers and carefully reviewing and considering the situation, Wiley has made the decision to return the e-books to the ProQuest Academic Complete collection,” the company wrote. “We'll be working to make that happen as soon as possible, hopefully within the next week or so, and we'll keep the materials there for the remainder of the academic year. We'll be releasing a more detailed statement sometime soon."The incident is especially significant because of its proximity to the start of the fall semester. Access to digital textbooks can be essential to cash-strapped students, since they are a more affordable alternative to the often-pricey physical books required for university classes.Geneva Henry, George Washington University’s Dean of Libraries and Academic Innovation, says the research library was first made aware of Wiley’s decision to remove the ebooks in late May this year. “Every year, if publishers are going to remove titles from that aggregation, ProQuest notifies us and says these titles are rolling off and it’s usually followed by an email offering the libraries an opportunity to buy any of those individual titles that are either high-use or significant to us,” Henry told Motherboard. “And so we sort of waited for the next email that you can buy these individual titles, but that email [to purchase] never came.”
According to Henry, ProQuest asked Wiley to leave the titles on the list until the end of the month and the publisher obliged. She estimates that well over 300 students have lost access to e-textbooks assigned for their courses as a result. “Probably a lot more because we keep finding out about resources we don’t know about,” she added. “And on the library end, I don’t know if I can even estimate how much scrambling has been going on and continues to go on by the library staff and the librarians. They’re working with the faculty to identify what the resources are and in some cases find alternatives to the textbook, or they’re out there trying to buy print versions of the textbook.” The inability to subscribe to individual titles is a particular pain point for librarians trying to retroactively address the situation. While academic libraries offer to help instructors identify what materials are available in the library for courses, it’s by no means a requirement to collaborate on a syllabus with librarians or share the syllabus with the academic library at all. Instructors usually write syllabi months in advance. As a result, it’s hard for librarians to even know how many students and instructors have been impacted by poor communication between publishers and vendors. However, members of the greater open scholarship community see this as more than just poor communication. Low-income students who have had access revoked one to two weeks into the semester are now shouldering the cost and in some cases are being billed automatically.
“In the past, students had options to manage their costs, like used books and library reserves,” Nicole Allen, director of Open Education for the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), told Motherboard. “Now, publishers are pushing for new models where students get automatically charged a fee for each of their textbooks.” Allen says it’s not hard to guess why companies like Wiley want these titles to disappear from library collections. “It’s much easier to extract money directly from students who have no other options,” she added. “At a time when many students are already struggling to afford higher education, the cost of textbooks can be the straw that breaks the camel’s back. Libraries play an important role in bridging the gap for students who need access most, so anything making that harder is an equity issue.”Henry hopes that the failure of Wiley and ProQuest to support students and instructors this semester will lead to more universities throwing their support behind Open Educational Resources (OER), or materials created and licensed to be free to own and share. In the meantime, Yohanna Anderson of #ebookSOS, a campaign investigating the e-book market for libraries, has compiled the full list of titles pulled from ProQuest to make authors aware that their books are being restricted. Update: This article was updated to include Wiley’s plans to restore access to the digital textbooks, which were announced shortly after publication.