Kiera Sullivan
Kiera Sullivan
Library Services

Do you feel scholarly publishers hear your needs and challenges as a librarian?


Bernie Folan, Bernie Folan Research and Consulting and Claire Grace, The Open University, feel that too often the answer is no. And so a conversation over lunch at UKSG16 was the starting point for their recent research project: “Facts of the matter: what librarians want publishers to know.”


Earlier this month at UKSG17, Bernie and Claire shared their research highlights in a 10 minute ‘lightning talk’. Ahead of their talk, we asked Bernie to expand on what inspired their research, if there were any surprises in the data, and what actions both publishers and librarians can take as a result.


Q. What prompted you to carry out this research?
Bernie.jpgA. In my work with librarians, typically carrying out market research on behalf of publishers, I have heard often that librarians feel talked at but not necessarily heard. There are of course alternative comments; I do also hear of good experiences at library advisory groups which are more collaborative. While talking about this with Claire Grace (Head of Content and Licensing at the Open University and my partner on this project) over lunch at last year's UKSG conference, she suggested that it's important that publishers hear librarians and we agreed this conference might be the ideal platform. When I worked in academic publishing I was happiest when talking with customers and trying to understand challenges with a view to finding workable solutions. This has naturally driven me into the work I do and I truly hope sharing the information that we've gathered will positively impact scholarly communication and start much needed conversations.

Q. How many responses did you receive?
A. We had no idea what to expect and received 235 responses in total which produced 676 messages for publishers. We deliberately tried not to lead in any way and apart from the demographic information, all responses were free text. In this study, respondents were overwhelmingly from the UK and Ireland (over 80%) and from higher education institutions. We are interested in carrying out further research at more granular levels if there is an appetite.


A significant number of UK HEIs are represented. We left name and institution name as optional to encourage candor. Just under a third of the respondents provided contact details.

Q. Did consistent themes emerge in the responses?
A. Absolutely. Budget challenges and pricing strategies dominated across all role types. Although this may not be surprising, I would challenge publishers to review the feedback and take it into their organizations to discuss. If that is not a priority, I'd question why that's the case.

A close second was ebook (particularly etextbook) licenses and purchase models creating real access headaches for users. There is a palpable feeling of weariness that this is still a problem.  Other recurrent themes were user experience and access issues, discoverability challenges largely due to metadata problems, communication and collaboration needs (particularly from senior librarians) and accessibility issues.

Q. Did anything surprise you in the responses?
A. I think the scale of operability and access type issues that cause headaches for so many libraries. Innovation is great but getting the basics right should be a given for publishers supplying a service. The overwhelming messages about pricing models and strategies and declining or flat library budgets are food for thought. Just because we've heard it before, doesn't mean we should discount the large number of comments provided. We hoped for more comments of a strategic nature from senior librarians, and there are a good number, but it feels like ebook challenges and pricing concerns are taking up too much headspace and time at many levels.

Q. What actions do you think publishers can take as a result?

A. First, I'd say get a cup of coffee and delve into the data! We've organized it by themed tabs so that different functions can review the messages relevant to them. I'd suggest that publishers take time to have a conversation internally about the messages. Are there surprises? What improvements are possible to make? What are the barriers to change that would improve the work lives of librarians and access to research and pedagogy by library users? Have a good open and frank conversation.

Libraries and publishers are partners in research communication and teaching so must talk more openly and regularly. Use your time with librarians wisely. It's not just about sales. There is and can be rich collaboration.

Smaller publishers need to find a way to communicate and listen while explaining their practices and differentiating themselves. Can they join forces to enable better communication?

Q. Are there any takeaways for librarians from the survey?
A. Given the large number of comments on pricing and budgets, I'd challenge librarians to consider why this message is not being heard by many publishers. What are the possible blocks? Should there be different questions being asked and answers given? On which side do the blocks to understanding exist? What can be done differently to move forward? Where the budget message has been heard, what were the enablers?

Q. Are you planning on repeating the research?
A. There has been a great deal of interest in the study and lots of delegates at the UKSG conference were keen to review the data.  Future research could drill down in different ways by organization type or by role. But what we'd really like to do is the reverse of this... ask publishers for their messages to librarians. That could be a very interesting study - watch this space.

I carry out bespoke research with librarians on behalf of publishers from time to time but I'm increasingly keen to find a mechanism for longitudinal studies tracking the same few themes over time. I welcome ideas and suggestions for the themes we need to track.

Find our PowerPoint slides and the dataset organized into themed tabs here.


Do you agree with the themes and comments in this research? Share your thoughts in the comments below.


Image Credit: Bernie Folan


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