News | Course packs go digital through library

Publishers still reluctant to grant digital distribution rights to company that negotiates copyright

A system that capitalizes on existing online materials in library databases could significantly minimize McGill’s paper trail by cutting down the number of pages used to make hardcopy course packs.

Students already pay the library to access academic material online, and linking course reading lists to the library’s databases could reduce dependency on course packs that still haven’t made it online because of copyright rules.

Right now, professors can direct students via WebCT to readings in the library’s digital collection of journals, historical documents, and e-books. Materials not included in those databases would be sold in a small course pack.

SSMU VP University Affairs Nadya Wilkinson hopes the direct linking system would save students money and reduce the use of paper.

“In the short term, we want to get the [printed] course packs as small as possible,” she said.

The library spends more than

half of its $14.5-million budget on a constantly growing bank of online materials according to Diane Koen, the library’s Associate Director of Planning and Resources. Students can access 40,000 e-journals and 1.2-million e-books through the library’s database.

“The library holds far more journals online than in print,” Koen wrote in an email statement to The Daily.

Koen estimated that hundreds of professors are using the direct linking system this semester. The size and volume of course packs decreased this year from an average of 340 to 333 pages, according to course pack coordinator James Warne.

On the scale that McGill prints course packs, that’s 700,000 pages of material.

Warne explained that administrative expenses – acquiring material, scanning pages, and reporting use of each page to publishers – accounts for a large portion of the ten-cents-per-page fee that students pay for course packs.

Most of those tasks are outsourced to Eastman systems – a Montreal company contracted by McGill to obtain copyright clearances for all content and deliver an electronic file back to the University for printing.

Eastman also collects an additional copyright fee for readings that use either 25 pages or more than ten per cent of their original source material.

According to the company’s president Craig Park, Eastman has been ready to put McGill course packs online for six years, but haven’t been able to because a scanned image of a page and a paper copy of the same material are treated differently under copyright law. Publishers are reluctant to grant digital distribution rights, and when they do agree, they charge exorbitant rates.

“I think the best thing to do is to change the copyright legislation, which would make digital copies the same as printed copies – they’re the same thing, why are they treated differently?” said Park.

This alternative approach to electronic course packs is shared by Warne, who explained that with a digital distribution system, copyrights still needed to be cleared with publishers for the content’s distribution.

“Obviously if you move to digital, you still have to do the entire reporting step,” Warne said.

Arts Senator Zachary Honoroff who is exploring the option of electronic course packs, said that putting entire course packs online was a long-term goal. For now, he hopes that students will encourage their professors to use the Library Databases that they already pay for.

“We just want to give students a choice,” Honoroff said.

Barry Schmidt, the General Manager of the McGill Bookstore, said that while course packs represent about 25 per cent of his textbook sales, he’d still like to see them be available to students digitally.

“If they’re available online through the libraries, and it reduces the cost of course materials to students, I’m pretty much in favour of it,” he said.

The packs are sold with little markup – only enough to cover the operating costs of selling packs and handling rain-check slips, according to Schmidt. He added that students will likely still want to purchase the printed material, as a matter of convenience.

“If it’s on WebCT, you can’t read it on the bus, or take it on the train, or read it in bed,” he said.

With the University’s contract with Eastman up next summer people are already discussing the future of course packs at McGill.

“Everybody wants to do what’s best for the students,” Warne said. “I don’t think anything is out of the question.”


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