Commercial Textbooks Present Challenges in a Virtual Environment

As we start the fall 2020 semester, staff at Emory Libraries are working hard to provide alternative access to the print course reserves collection, which has historically housed a significant number of required textbooks. However, because of health and safety requirements this fall, all Emory Libraries are unable to provide print reserve services, so students cannot access these supplemental copies of course materials. Even if print reserves were available, the majority of Emory students are attending classes remotely and thus could not access them. To support instructors and students over the next several months, we are purchasing as many materials as possible in digital format so that students have access to them, even in a primarily online, alternative learning environment.

However, this work is hampered by textbook publishers who do not provide electronic purchasing options for libraries. Approximately 85% of existing course textbooks are simply unavailable to libraries in any other format than print. Textbook publishers have built their profit models around selling e-textbooks directly to students, not libraries. Furthermore, we know that the cost of textbooks and other course materials represents a major financial hurdle for university students since these prices have risen 137% since 2001, and research has shown that “66 percent of students reported skipping buying assigned course material.”

Despite the Libraries’ commitment to purchase as many digital materials as possible, the following publishers will not sell an e-textbook version of their publications to libraries:

  • Pearson
  • Cengage
  • Houghton
  • McGraw Hill
  • Oxford University Press (Textbook Division)
  • Elsevier imprints (especially in health science) such as Elsevier Health Science, Mosby, and Saunders
  • Thieme

Thus, students who cannot afford required textbooks or cannot acquire them in non-U.S. locations where they remotely attend Emory classes will not have any alternative electronic access to their textbook.

If the assigned course readings are available in print, there are several alternatives available to students who are learning remotely.

  • Purchase or rent the assigned texts from the Emory Barnes and Noble bookstore, which will incur shipping fees. Note that international shipping fees may be prohibitive and thus create inequity for students based outside the U.S.
  • Purchase the assigned texts from a used book seller on the internet, which will also incur shipping fees. These include, but aren’t limited to, Amazon, Chegg, and ABE Books.
  • Purchase the assigned text at a local bookstore, if it is available.

To ensure equity of access to course materials for all students, we recommend that instructors planning their syllabi work with librarians and informationists to explore and identify viable commercial textbook alternatives, including the following:

  • Using an existing e-book in the relevant subject area from the library’s e-book collection or requesting that the Libraries purchase one (if available). Many academic e-books aren’t considered textbooks and are therefore available for the Libraries to purchase. Learn more about E-books at Emory Libraries.
  • Adopting an open educational resource (OER). OERs are freely available, digital educational materials that are openly licensed to allow for reuse and modification by instructors. Learn more about Affordable Textbooks and Teaching Materials.
  • Including supplemental readings on electronic course reserves by:
    • Linking to content from the Libraries’ existing collection of electronic resources (e-books, journal articles, streaming media, and other digital materials) or acquiring new content whenever possible.
    • Posting individual book chapters or excerpts, subject to copyright limitations. If copyright permissions are necessary, the Libraries will seek and pay for them.

Students having difficulties paying for assigned course materials can contact Campus Life Student Case Management and Intervention Services for assistance.

We make every effort to purchase and license online materials that are free from digital rights management (DRM) restrictions to ensure unfettered student access. DRM includes limits on the number of users that can access a resource at any one time as well as limits on copying, printing, and downloading.

Librarians and informationists at all Emory Libraries are available to help instructors with questions concerning alternative course materials such as e-books, OERs, and e-reserves and will make every effort to acquire resources that students can easily access no matter where they may be. Please contact your librarian or informationist for more information:

This post was adapted from one written by a team at the University of Guelph Library and published on June 22, 2020: Commercial Textbooks Present Challenges in a Virtual Environment