How Academics and Students Use Ebooks: Evidence from the JISC National Ebooks Observatory Project

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Finding sustainable ebook business models that allow university libraries to provide equity of access to their short loan titles and that are also profitable for publishers is an ongoing debate within the UK. One of the main reasons for this has been the lack of market research available on ebook user behaviour and what the impact of free at the point of use access is on traditional textbook print sales revenue.

About the project:
In 2007 the JISC national ebooks observatory project was set up to undertake the necessary market research to help publishers, aggregators, libraries and funding bodies to make informed decisions based on real evidence rather than assumptions.

The principle research method of the project is based on observing impacts, changes in attitudes and perceptions and actual behaviours in real time. This requires a high level of collaboration and participation. The project commenced with the licensing of 36 course text ebooks for students on business management, media studies, engineering and medicine courses. These ebooks were selected by university librarians and made available free of charge to all users in UK universities. 7 publishers, 2 ebook aggregators and 127 universities participated in the project and worked with JISC Collections and CIBER at University College London.

In 2008 and 2009 a wealth of data has been collected:

• Benchmarking surveys carried out in January 2008 and in January 2009 explored current users’ awareness, perceptions and attitudes towards ebooks. Together, these surveys received over 52,000 responses.

• Raw server logs have been analysed to see exactly how users discover, navigate through and use the ebooks.

• Case studies including focus groups were held at 8 universities. Data gathered from the focus groups held with students, teaching staff and librarians has been analysed against the log data to explore user behaviours and attitudes.

• Library circulation and print sales data has been analysed against the usage of the ebooks.

The findings from the various areas of research will shortly be made available at for everyone to read. In addition, a final report, that is concise with clear recommendations, is being released for comment on the 15th September 2009. Over 100 publishers and librarians are attending the event to review the final report. It is anticipated that following this event, the final report will be released in October 2009.

The proposed presentation:
The aim of the presentation will be to share the snapshot of real time evidence gathered in the JISC national ebooks observatory project and provide publishers and aggregators with practical recommendations that will help them to develop their ebook offerings to the education market.

The presentation will be of relevance to all those in the ebook publishing sector, but will have particular relevance for those with responsibility for the education sector, business models /pricing and platform development. Anyone that is interested in ebooks will also find this presentation beneficial in terms of understanding the behaviours of customers.

It is not possible to cover all the findings from the project in the time available so I would like to focus on the following key areas:

1. How staff and students actually use course text ebooks:

  • Discovery – 61% users came from links on the university library, 37% the library catalogue
  • Over 50% of users dip in and out of chapters for brief fact extraction.
  • 85% of users spend less than 1 minute on a page – they view rather than read online
  • The average session length is 13 minutes and in that time, users view 8 pages
  • Lunchtime is when ebooks are most heavily used
  • Use of course text ebooks is extremely seasonal with very high peaks followed by dramatic drops
  • There are clear subject differences in terms of on and off campus use and times of year

2. What are the impacts on traditional print sales revenue?

  • There was no significant impact on the print sales
  • Demand for short loan collection print titles far exceeds their supply: nearly a quarter of students reported being `dissatisfied’ or `very dissatisfied’ with library provision, and around half of teaching staff said that their students regularly complained about this.
  • For librarians, e-course texts are a valuable back-up for hard pressed short loan collections, offering a `safety valve’ at times of peak demand, rather than a direct substitution for hard copy

3. Recommendations for publishers and ebook aggregators. This section will focus on:

  • Business models and pricing for the education sector
  • Development of ebooks, interfaces and platforms in line with user feedback and behaviour
  • Licensing for the education sector
  • Discoverability and accessibility

With over 60% of the UK academic population already using ebooks, it is essential that the market develops in line with user behaviour and expectations. This project provides essential market research and I would like everyone to make use of this data to help inform their own strategies and developments.

Caren Milloy

JISC Collections

I am Senior Collections Manager at JISC Collections, a UK procuement and licensing organistion working on behalf of UK universities and colleges. As senior collections manager, I am actively involved in licensing, project management and marketing. For over 2 years, I have been managing the JISC national e-books observatory project and other associated projects in the e-books area.

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Picture of Jon Williams
Jon Williams
02/24/2010 4:55am EST

Excellent presentation and very data rich. My only struggle with the data is figuring out how to apply it to the US market, but otherwise excellent.

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