During this crisis, publishers must allow greater access to their content

Universities are scrambling to streamline online learning and temporarily removing barriers to scholarly content will be a huge help, says Anna Vernon 

March 24, 2020
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As the Covid-19 outbreak worsens, universities are under exceptionally challenging circumstances. All face-to-face teaching has ceased, and universities are moving at pace to deliver all their teaching, research and digital scholarship online while keeping their staff and students safe.

Higher education libraries have a long-standing record of adopting technologies to deliver an excellent student experience, delivering content and highly tailored support to the 2.3 million students, postgraduates and researchers at UK universities.

The immediate concern for university libraries in the push to move online is ensuring that staff and users can continue to work as smoothly as possible under the circumstances. Staff and students require full digital, remote access to the software, tools and content that they would normally have been able to access regardless of whether they were on or off campus.

This means moving all on-campus support to online modes at a time when the number of support staff is lower and unpredictable. Software and content that cannot be accessed remotely and by many users at the same time is no longer useful. Libraries also need to find the means to get library content that is held in print to all its users in a way that is usable and legal.

Access to print content is a huge challenge. In contrast to journals, many books are not available in an electronic format. Libraries have previously managed access to book content in various ways, from buying several print copies to providing access via e-textbook platforms or, in rare cases, providing copies of e-textbooks to each user.

Libraries also use the Copyright Licensing Agency Universities UK/Guild HE Higher Education Licence to copy sections of books, magazines, journals and websites.

In practice, this is mostly used to digitise extracts for use in teaching. As identified in the Understanding the value of the CLA Licence report, many universities would prefer to purchase e-book content digitally in its entirety but are unable to because the licences are unsuitable, too expensive or both.

At a time when universities are racing to scale up their service delivery to provide access to content and software, we are asking providers and licensors to help make this happen by temporarily removing paywalls or other barriers to use. 

While universities appreciate offers of free library trials, they do not have the capacity to set up authentication and discovery to each individual publisher’s separate content offers.

Publishers can help remove manual intervention by offering extended free trials and by adding content to “subscribed” content lists without universities or their users needing to individually register. 

We are particularly impressed by the efforts of e-textbook aggregators including Kortext, BibliU and participating publishers that have granted access to textbooks, monographs, and other core learning materials at no cost to universities.

We call upon all remaining publishers to adopt the measures set out in Jisc’s 20 March statement on access to content so that all students can access all their materials remotely and researchers can continue to work, collaborate and innovate in these difficult and exceptional circumstances.

Over the coming days we will contact publishers and library providers to capture access arrangements and communicate these arrangements to institutions. In the medium term we want to work with publishers to put in place clear exit arrangements so that users are not cut off from core material too quickly. If you are a publisher or contact provider and want to let us know about the measures you’re taking please contact jisc.licensing@jisc.ac.uk.

Anna Vernon is head of licensing at Jisc Collections.

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