Mapping the Digital Supply Chain for Open Access Books

Mapping the Free Ebook Supply Chain Panel

Mapping the Free Ebook Supply Chain Panel (L-R) Jill O’Neill, Rebecca Weizenbach (Moderator), Rupert Gatti, Eric Hellman

This session described a research project at the University of Michigan funded by the Mellon Foundation. The project sought to discover who is using open access (OA) monographs and the uses to which they are put. Rupert Gatti, Director, Open Book Publishers (OBP), represented the publishers. He said that new innovative publishing initiatives are appearing, and one of them is OA. The issue is how to get new developments into traditional distribution systems without being bound to the publisher network.

Books appear in multiple formats and are distributed through normal channels; we also have other channels such as PDF, .mobi, and HTML. There are also additional resources that accompany books; with OA, we look to connect the book with the accompanying resources. One problem is that library catalogs are often defined around one particular edition of the book, which causes complications in understanding that the book is a single work that can be accessed in different ways. Here is a typical supply chain for a book on the OBP platform.

General Supply Chain

General Supply Chain

The library supply chain is shown here. These books have DRM imposed on them which may raise their prices.

Library Supply Chain

Library Supply Chain

Here is the free edition distribution network, which is swamping the paid channel.

Free Distribution Network

Free Distribution Network

Notice that the library is not included in this network. What is the best way to integrate libraries into the OA ecosystem? There are issues with the multiple formats. We need to recognize that OA books are not just free; they are reusable. The Mellon study looks at issues around formats, readers, DRM, and discovery.

Legacy vs. OA Supply

Legacy vs. OA Supply

Eric Hellman, Founder,, looked at how readers find OA e-books. Initial guesses were probably Google, maybe social networks, and occasionally the library. The approach for the study involved collecting the usage and log data (a lot more work than originally thought), studying the data by book and referrer, and asking the users. There are 168 books in the study. The survey app can be seen here, or you can try it at “open access ebooks” on The library traffic is very small on the overall data analysis, but it is much more significant on the OBP platform.

Initial results: Most traffic is from Google, then Facebook and Twitter.  Library discovery need not be negligible.

Jill O’Neill, Educational Programs Manager at NISO, represented the readers. She looked for scholarly works and described the process she went through to access a book published in 1951.

Points of Discovery and Access

One edition of the book is an e-book, and Hathi Trust offers complete access to it. In addition, JSTOR has recently announced access to open e-books, which has introduced some complexity into the system.

The user experience depended on knowing where one might find the information; many sources are not widely known to end users. A reader has no way to know the extent of the access, and many systems do not save the time of the readers or educate them. Google may have the book, but select sections may be blocked out, so OA and “public domain” are not synonymous!

Dead ends

A practical understanding of access can inform usage:

Informing Usage

Everything we tell users about getting to desired content will help to educate them how to get the content.

Successful UX

This is a problem for the entire information community. We need to shape the user experience and behavioral norms, awareness, complete, explicit, and high quality metadata, and knowledge of available and/or compatible formats.

Don HawkinsDon Hawkins
Charleston Conference Blogger and Against The Grain Columnist

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