Free E-books - a real alternative?

  1. 1. Ylva Berglund

    Oxford University

  2. 2. Martin Wynne

    Oxford University

  3. 3. Rowan Wilson

    Oxford University

  4. 4. Alan Morrison

    Oxford University

  5. 5. Greg Simpson

    Oxford University

  6. 6. James Cummings

    Oxford University

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Increased IT literacy amongst students in combination with cuts in library funding means higher demand for texts in electronic form. Or does it? Is the use of electronic texts really an option to more traditional material? What are the potential benefits and drawbacks? What issues face someone wanting to use electronic texts for teaching or learning? These are all well-known questions that have been discussed before. We suggest that they are questions that merit further discussion in the light of the increased availability of free e-books. We will touch on those in our presentation, but focus on less frequently discussed questions relating to quality and availability of free e-books, attitudes towards free e-books, and issues relating to technical aspects of free e-books: formats, tools, and scope for repurposing.

This paper builds on the results of an investigation into free e-books that the Oxford Text Archive performed in 2003. The study was commissioned by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), a body which provides strategic guidance, advice and opportunities to use Information and Communications Technology (ICT) to support teaching, learning, research and administration in higher and further education in the UK. The main aim of the study was to produce a comprehensive report for the JISC E-Book Working Group. A number of related studies were performed simultaneously addressing other aspects of e-books.

The Free E-books study focussed on the following key issues:

Availability: The study concentrated on e-books which are available at no cost with the minimum of intellectual property rights constraints.
User needs: The study investigated the possible users, uses, and usability of free e-books, paying particular attention to customisation.
Repurposing: The study explored the extent to which existing freely available e-books can be repurposed, converted to other delivery formats, and assimilated into other activities or collections.
Within these categories, the following activities were undertaken:

Availability The study first clarified the notion of "free e-books" and focussed on those resources which meet this definition and that are available with the minimum of IPR constraints. An initial survey of sources of free e-books was undertaken and provides an indication of subject coverage within the Arts and Humanities, the variety of formats available (e.g. (X)HTML, XML, Microsoft Reader etc.), and any factors which serve as indicators of quality and provenance.
User needs The study concentrated on the needs and concerns of students, teachers, and research staff working in the Arts and Humanities within the UK's HE/post-16 sector. Through a combination of survey instruments, online publications, discussion lists, and workshop events, we identified current and potential users of free e-books, and defined their requirements (for example with regard to possible customisations such as book-marking, marginalia, highlighting, building personal collections, and citation).
Repurposing Throughout the lifetime of the study as well as after the conclusion of it, we have conducted research to establish the issues involved when existing freely available e-books are repurposed, converted to other delivery formats, or assimilated into other activities or collections. We have investigated the actual and potential procedures used to both create and repurpose free e-books, in an attempt to define a set of recommendations for either the creators or users of free e-books (e.g. simple advice to creators which will help ensure that users can make the most of their e-books, and advice to users which may help them decide if a particular type of free e-book is likely to meet their needs).
The following outputs and deliverables have been produced:

A study-specific website containing:
Information about the study and guidance on how to participate.
Regular progress reports on the study, accompanied by the project plan and a clear statement of aims and deliverables.
Publicly available documents and instruments developed and used during the course of the study.
Links to sources, resources, tools, and software identified or discussed as part of the study.
An initial survey of sources of free e-books (to include an indication of subject coverage within the Arts and Humanities, the variety of formats available, and any indicators of quality and provenance) mounted on the website.
An investigation into the actual and potential procedures used to both create and repurpose free e-books, the findings of which will be summarised on the website and form a significant component of the final report.
The production of appropriate questionnaires and survey instruments to gather information about the requirements and expertise of the UK HE/post-16 community with regard to their use of free e-books.
As appropriate, summaries of the findings of such questionnaires and surveys mounted on the website
A one-day workshop to promote the findings of the study and inform the community about the possibilities and limitations of free e-books.
A draft final report on the study for consideration by the Steering Committee (and E-Book Working Group if necessary).
The production and promotion of the final report of the study.
The final study report represents the findings and outputs of a variety of activities. The work is of two distinct but necessarily related types: desk-based research into free e-books themselves, and survey instruments combined with activity-led workshops etc. designed to gather user feedback and establish user requirements. The survey instruments are a questionnaire to key proponents of e-learning in post-16 institutions, a dissemination workshop highlighting available resources, focus groups exploring potential uses and barriers to use of free e-books and case studies of existing good practice.

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Conference Info



Hosted at Göteborg University (Gothenburg)

Gothenborg, Sweden

June 11, 2004 - June 16, 2004

105 works by 152 authors indexed

Series: ACH/ICCH (24), ALLC/EADH (31), ACH/ALLC (16)

Organizers: ACH, ALLC

  • Keywords: None
  • Language: English
  • Topics: None