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Sustainable eBook Acquisition and Access: The not-for-profit Perspective

by | Mar 18, 2022 | 1 comment


By John Lenahan (Associate Vice President, Published Content, ITHAKA)

Against the Grain V34#1

Over the past decade, eBook acquisition and access practices have evolved significantly, including a shift to usage-based acquisition strategies, the expansion of DRM-free access, and the development of new Open Access approaches. With many models and platforms available to support Open Access publishing, it is important to understand how this content is being used across the globe and to have assurances that the models and access to the content are sustainable for the future.

The pandemic has accelerated the digital transformation of the monograph, and supporting users with electronic materials is now more important than ever. As we look to the future, how can we expand access to high-quality eBook content while improving the experience for both librarians and researchers?

As a not-for-profit organization, JSTOR works closely with libraries to understand their needs and collaborates with publishers on new solutions. In this article, we will provide background on our collective efforts to increase access to monographs over time, discuss existing models to support the publishing of Open Access content, review usage data of Open Access eBooks on the JSTOR platform, and share our perspective on ensuring long-term value, impact, and sustainability.

eBook Model Evolution

We launched the Books at JSTOR program in 2012, when just 7% of academic library budgets were used for eBooks (Schonfeld and Long, 2014). Since then, libraries have steadily expanded eBook acquisitions, with over 12% of budgets being spent on eBooks in 2019 (Frederick and Wolff-Eisenberg, 2020). During that time, shifts in teaching, learning, and research needs led us toward a more open, barrier-free eBook market. This trend is consistent with the mission and aims of not-for-profit publishers, libraries, and JSTOR. We want more people to have access to more books, with resources invested in ways that will yield the greatest impact. Thus, we have worked closely with our partners to learn together and make improvements to our program to maximize the discovery and impact of important scholarship, and on new models to expand access to more users. The most significant changes have included:

DRM-free Access

When Books at JSTOR first launched, we offered both unlimited, DRM-free access and single-user, DRM-restricted access. We included the single-user model to provide access to more eBooks from publishers, including new and course-adopted titles that publishers did not offer in unlimited models.

In 2015, we decided to offer the unlimited, DRM-free model exclusively to ensure that every eBook would be as easy to use as journal articles on our platform. We discussed this change with our publishing partners, who agreed to convert thousands of titles to the DRM-free model. While some publishers continue to hold back selected titles with course-adoption potential, we have been pleased to see movement across the community toward expanding DRM-free access. In a survey of our participating publishers, most said they have put more eBooks in unlimited, DRM-free models due to the demand from both libraries and users. Fred Nachbaur, Director of Fordham University Press, put it succinctly: “We like to make our content available in formats that libraries and patrons want to access it” (Nachbaur, 2021).

Chapter-level Discovery

We first believed the best way to discover eBooks was through preserving the integrity of the whole eBook and displaying them alongside articles in search results. Data showed us that while users were clicking on the table of contents pages as expected, they were not going to the chapter level. Our user experience research group began exploring the barriers to students using eBooks in their research workflow. A key barrier was that eBooks were too long, and it took too much time and effort for students to find what was most relevant.

This led us to begin surfacing chapters instead of full eBooks in our search results. Since many of our publishers only provided book-level metadata, this required us to create our own specifications for dividing eBooks into chapters and applying this consistently across publishers. We also developed our own internal systems to support chapter-level search and discovery, display, and metadata feeds to discovery-service providers.

We saw an immediate spike in usage. We also began to see more library participation in our program, and sales increased 600% the following year. This was driven mainly by the increased discoverability of backlist eBooks, which accounted for 70% of sales.

Usage-based Acquisition Models

Libraries are offering broader sets of eBooks to their users than ever before, allowing discovery and access across titles from a wide range of publishers, yet only paying for the materials that are used the most. We worked closely with libraries and consortia to develop our versions of Demand-Driven Acquisition (DDA) and Evidence-Based Acquisition (EBA) to ensure that we addressed common challenges of eBook acquisition. Importantly, these usage-based models were designed to be sustainable for publishers as well, and we have seen consistent growth in publisher sales and participation.

Developing Sustainable Open Access Models

Even as the shifts described above were taking place, we were exploring the potential of Open Access (OA) models for eBooks. We launched an OA eBook program in 2016 that has grown to include more than 7,700 titles. Libraries can use free MARC records or activate the OA titles in their discovery service, and users can cross-search all OA and licensed eBooks with all other content types on our platform.

The ease of discovery on JSTOR has led to strong usage of the OA titles. In 2021 alone, there were more than 11 million uses of the OA eBooks worldwide.

A Learning Journey

While some publishers have eagerly experimented with OA models, others fear being left behind. These publishers share the mission to make scholarship more accessible but worry that the lack of grant support and viable business models are not well understood by the government agencies and funders that are creating OA mandates. The potential for libraries converting to models such as “subscribe to open” could alleviate these concerns, but few of our smaller and medium-sized publishers have the ability to undertake such a change themselves. They lack the resources and bandwidth to design new business models and advocate for funding.

We have been working on various Open Access models in support of our publishers and to meet the demand from libraries and researchers for more OA content.

First, in our “Convert to Open” model, publishers have identified eBooks already available for sale on JSTOR to convert to OA without incurring any additional costs to do so. The usage data for these titles shows the strong impact of opening up backlist scholarly content and making it discoverable to researchers around the world. We reviewed 336 titles from 30 publishers that were converted from licensed eBooks to OA in 2019 and 2020 and documented the usage for each title one to two years prior to being converted to OA and an equivalent one to two years after. The usage for these titles increased by 3,279% after being converted to OA.

We have also developed a “Publish as Open” model in collaboration with libraries and publishers to support the publication of new titles directly as OA. In 2019, the Latin Americanist Research Resources Project (LARRP, a CRL initiative) approached JSTOR to support a low-cost OA pilot for new titles from Argentinian publisher CLACSO, the Latin American Council of Social Sciences.

To date, this collaboration has made 340 CLACSO titles freely accessible on JSTOR. The titles have been used more than 940,000 times by users across 195 countries. Sócrates Silva, Latin American & Iberian Studies Librarian for Columbia and Cornell and President of SALALM, described the project’s importance for bridging a critical gap in the scholarly communications system. “Despite established OA publishing models for scholarly works in Latin America, monograph discovery and preservation infrastructure for this important content in U.S. libraries is virtually nonexistent. This multi-partner, horizontal, and librarian-led pilot is testing out sustainable partnerships that take into account the monograph lifecycle from publisher to library” (JSTOR, 2021).

Based on the success of this pilot and ongoing support to fund future OA titles for CLACSO, we are working with LARRP to expand our collaboration and support other selected Latin American publishers. In the coming years, we plan to expand this model to other publishers in partnership with the academic community.

Meeting Pandemic-driven Needs for Access

Through the generosity of 92 publishers, a large set of eBooks was made available from March to August 2020 to support institutions affected by library closures due to COVID-19. A total of 38,000 titles were made freely available to 4,500+ institutions who signed up for access. This program helped libraries meet an immediate need during the sudden shift to online learning; in fact, these eBooks were used more than 7.8 million times. This demonstrates not only not-for-profit publishers’ commitment to supporting the academic and library communities but also a shared trust and willingness to adapt quickly to the changing environment.

Supporting Community Initiatives for Increasing Open Content

We collaborated with publishers and the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture to make scholarship related to its Black Liberation Reading List accessible to teachers, researchers, and the public. For each of the 95 books on the Schomburg Center’s list, JSTOR identified related journal articles, book chapters, and other content and provided unrestricted access throughout 2021. This initiative aimed to deepen engagement with this vital scholarship, and these items have generated 1.4 million item requests since the launch of the project.

Planning for the Future of eBooks

We have been greatly encouraged by the data showing that when content is made openly accessible on JSTOR, it gets a high amount of global usage. This holds true across frontlist and backlist titles, across disciplines in the humanities and social sciences, and across publishers large and small. The impact we have seen confirms to funding libraries that they are investing in content that not only has strong value for their own institutions, but also fills a global need. Publishers and authors can see that their scholarship is reaching more readers than ever before.

When discussing the future of the monograph, given the events of the last couple of years, several of our participating publishers talked about strategies to increase discoverability and to publish more OA books. Charles Watkinson, Director of the University of Michigan Press, said, “I think the future of the monograph is open access. If it is not, then monograph literature will not be as influential as journal article literature and that will be bad news for the humanities and qualitative social sciences” (Watkinson, 2021).

It is our ambition to continue to explore innovative, cost-effective models to support the sustainability of our publishing partners and to increase the open content available to researchers around the world. We are grateful to our publisher and library partners and look forward to building on the progress we’ve made toward our shared goals of serving the scholarly community and improving access to knowledge and education.


Frederick, J. K., & Wolff-Eisenberg, C. (2020, April 2). Ithaka S+R US Library Survey 2019. https://doi.org/10.18665/sr.312977

JSTOR. (2021, June 9). Open Access pilot for Latin American monographs expands [Press release]. https://about.jstor.org/news/open-access-pilot-for-latin-american-monographs-expands/

Nachbaur, Fred. (2021). Interview by Cristina Mezuk. December 10. Ann Arbor, MI.

Schonfeld, R. C., & Long, M. P. (2014, March 11). Ithaka S+R US Library Survey 2013.

Watkinson, Charles. (2021). Interview by Cristina Mezuk. December 7. Ann Arbor, MI.

1 Comment

  1. Charles Watkinson

    This is a very interesting overview. Thank you, John. The question about chapter-by-chapter versus whole book delivery is interesting with readers expressing strong views on both formats. The degree of additional usage JSTOR experienced is striking. I’ve always wondered whether there is a difference in chapter-by-chapter level with edited volumes vs single author ones.


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