Academic Publishing, Audiobooks, Digital Publishing, Trends in Publishing

Audiobooks – more than just a trend?

Audiobooks have been the fastest growing area in consumer publishing, but also in academic publishing they are becoming more and more popular.

Undoubtedly the market leader is Amazon’s “Audible” but other audio services like Spotify, Audiobooks.com and various eBook vendors also offer audiobook programmes and some publishers distribute audiobooks on their own ebook platforms or websites.

Of course, audiobooks are not new – their origins date back to the 1930s when audiobooks were being sold on vinyl records, primarily for educational purposes. However, since they have become digital, their market reach has grown exponentially and with modern devices (for example smart watches or speakers), they can be played in all sorts of environments and have also become more interesting for the academic market. Their potential to bring in new types of content is interesting to the academic market and non-fiction “trade” publishing was  the first to take advantage of this, for example in Bloomsbury’s “33 1/3” series with a focus on exploring popular music (this project is a co-operation between Bloomsbury Publishing and Spotify).

In academic publishing, Princeton and Cambridge University Presses were the first publishers to announce their audiobook programmes: whilst PUP launched theirs in 2018 , which now comprises 12 titles, Cambridge launched their pilot with 4 titles at the 2019 London Book Fair (and a fifth title will be available in October). They have benefited from some authors who have been happy to read their work, for instance the topical “There Is No Planet B” by Mike Berners-Lee. Both university presses collaborate with the UK-based production company Sound Understanding. In November 2018, Wiley announced a collaboration with RBmedia to produce over 650 audiobooks over the next three years, though the focus will be on business and finance as well as the popular Dummies brand, more than on traditional academic publishing.

No doubt, with audiobooks being one of the buzzwords of the industry, there will be more to follow, and readers ought to keep an eye on our blog, where we will talk more about this trend as it evolves with some industry stakeholders.

Libraries, Services

The British Library: literally a national treasure

Today the British Library is housed in what from the outside is a very a non-descript building.  Resembling a giant warehouse, it stands on Euston Road in London next to St Pancras station, its much more imposing neighbour, and is a stone’s throw from both Euston and King’s Cross stations.  It therefore enjoys an ideal location in terms of accessibility.

Rather amazingly, the current building was opened twenty years ago last year: there are posters inside that celebrate this.  And, in contrast to its dull exterior, inside the building is magnificent.  A majestic staircase sweeps ever upwards (there is an escalator for the lazy or less fit), each floor an ingenious showcase to shelves full of books behind glass from George III’s peerless library. There are comfortable working areas on every floor, available to anyone who needs to nip in to find a place of work for a few minutes – or a few hours – before catching a train.  Often these are occupied by students – interestingly, mainly overseas students – are they more aware of this national resource than the home-grown variety?  There’s a restaurant, cafés and a shop; and everywhere it’s light and bright and warm, the antithesis to poky, stuffy and forbidding, facilitation of modern scholarship made vibrant. 

Beyond are the reading rooms.  Anyone who can provide the right credentials can get a reader’s card.  It does involve quite a lot of waiting about – and being turned away if you haven’t brought the right documents with you.  You need a passport and recent proof of your address on a utility bill or bank statement.  Security is tight – partly because St Pancras is viewed as a possible terrorist target – but the bag searches are quick and this care taken over readers’ safety is reassuring.  Once the reader’s card has been secured, it provides access to the reading rooms, accompanied by a wonderfully efficient book selection service.  Books may be ordered online in advance of turning up at the library, and they will be waiting for you when you arrive.

All this is free.  But for a payment of £80 a year, you can become a member of the British Library as well as a reader. This provides many benefits, including free access to the exhibitions for you and a friend, free access to up to four events per year and discounts on purchases from the shop, cafés and restaurant.  The current exhibition (it closes on Sunday) is Leonardo da Vinci: a Mind in Motion, and features a collection of Leonardo’s scientific writings, drawn from three major collections.  It is well worth a visit if you happen to be in London today or over the weekend.

Even if you are only an occasional visitor to London, you are likely to get your membership ‘moneysworth’ over the year.  More importantly, you will be supporting one of the world’s greatest libraries, a national treasure of which we can unequivocally be proud in these times of turmoil and political farce.  So this short post is meant as a little nudge: if you aren’t yet familiar with the British Library, and can make time for a visit – or go to its plainer but as a provider of scholarly resources equally munificent sister at Boston Spa – our betting is that your life will be enriched.

Finances, Students

Jumping on the student gravy train

We’re almost twenty years into this century and each year has brought an increase in the politicisation of the UK’s universities, with the resulting knock-on effect on the student population.  In 2002, Tony Blair said that the government’s target was for 50% of eighteen-year-olds to enter higher education – a figure which it subsequently transpired he probably picked out of the air.  David Cameron was keen on universities being run as businesses, while at the same time deploring the “narrowness” of the subjects they covered. 

The introduction of tuition fees, starting at modest levels in 1998 and rising eventually to £9,000 a year in the academic year 2012 – 2013, meant universities were now in competition with each other, and trying not only to attract the best students or encourage students to enrol for the courses that best served their goals, but taking any students with the remotest prospect of gaining a degree, provided they could pay the fees. This has resulted in the phenomenon of 38% of students receiving unconditional offers, or offers with “unconditional components”, according to UCAS, this year.  The practice has now come under scrutiny because there is evidence that some of these students have not made as much effort to gain good A level grades as they would have if they’d had targets to meet.  Confusingly, the same quest to beat the competition has made sixth form colleges and secondary schools with sixth forms turn away students who did not achieve high GCSE grades, to preserve the reputation of the school. 

In a partial about-turn, but still with the competitive aim very much in view, some universities are now offering incentives, in the form of bursaries, to students who get the best A level grades; others are offering reduced fees, putting money into “free” accounts for the purchase of study-related materials, or providing first-year students with computers in order to fill all the places they have available.  And although in practice UK universities embrace the concept of “widening participation” with varying degrees of enthusiasm, all are paying it 110% lip service.  But really it is all about bums on seats.

Now others are jumping on the student gravy train.  Banks are offering cash incentives to students opening accounts.  One very famous hardware manufacturer sells a computer costing almost £1000 which, recent adverts suggest, students can’t do without; they’re being offered it via a payment scheme of “only” almost £50 per month.  It is easy for students to get loans, not just from the government, but from banks and other financial providers, including some very dubious ones. 

Students have therefore become big business.  Everyone wants a piece of the cash they do not actually have, but will somehow find ways of obtaining because they believe they are investing in their future.  Sometimes the outcome will be worthwhile; on many occasions it won’t – they’ll either drop out of courses unsuitable for them or which they can’t keep on funding; emerge from university with degrees that don’t fit them for the jobs they want to do; or find that no jobs exist in their chosen field.  And the real scandal is that it is becoming increasingly difficult for them to find someone to turn to for unbiased, well-informed advice before they make these costly decisions.  Schools and universities are likely to put their own vested interests first; many parents still labour under the delusion that if only you can get a degree, the world will be your oyster.

Wouldn’t it be great if the institutions and businesses seeking to make money from students put back a little of that money to set up an independent advisory council for students – something akin to an Ombudsman Service, a financial planning service, a Citizen’s Advice Bureau and a careers advisory service rolled into one?  It wouldn’t close down the gravy-train – to expect that would be too pie-in-the-sky – but at least it would help them to make wiser, better informed choices more suited to their needs. 

Services

Going out to Tender: a Study in Etiquette

During the (almost) twenty years of Gold Leaf’s existence, we have worked on many tenders.  Sometimes we have been sitting on one side of the table; sometimes on the other.  We have helped clients prepare  Invitations to Tender [ITTs] and assess the eventual results they’ve received; we have advised at tender “beauty contests” (i.e., formal presentations requested of shortlisted applicants); we have attended the latter on behalf of the clients making the bid; and on occasions we have bid ourselves.  We therefore hope that these notes, which are born of considerable experience and have been triggered both by a recent, particularly poorly-conceived tendering process in which we invited to participate and in anticipation of helping a new client to prepare an ITT, will be useful to our readers.

People sometimes ask what the difference is between an ITT and a Request for Proposal [RFP].  The two terms are often used interchangeably; but an RFP can be more informal in approach than an ITT, which usually involves a formal invitation to participate, results in multiple responses and culminates in the award of a legally-binding contract to the successful applicant.  An RFP may be a simple request to an existing supplier to set out the methodology, costs and fees for a project that has already been offered to them, without reference to other suppliers.  This article will focus on ITTs; and on best practice (“etiquette”), rather than providing a step-by-step “how to” guide for constructing the ITT document (much excellent advice may be found online for those seeking such guidelines).

Prior to designing an ITT, the first step to take is to consider carefully whether it is necessary at all; and if the answer to this is ‘yes’, whether it should be an open or closed ITT.  If you are considering designing an ITT for the second part of a project which a favoured supplier has already completed successfully, and you and the supplier are both happy for them to continue with Part 2, you do not need to put the second part of the project out to tender unless not doing so means a contravention of the public procurement policy in your country (the UK rules are set out clearly on the GOV.UK website here, but will almost certainly change after Brexit) or goes against the rules of your own company or organisation.  If you are obliged by such a policy or rules to go out to tender, you owe it to your less-preferred suppliers both to take up as little of their time post-bid as possible and to keep an open enough mind to consider their bids with professional seriousness: the excellence of one of them may, after all, surprise you!

If you genuinely want to devise a tender, to discover what is ‘out there’, whether it should be open or closed depends on how specialised is the work required.  If your organisation operates in a sector that requires of the supplier prior specialist knowledge and experience – e.g., of practical application of the Arts – or specified technical competence – e.g., being able to provide a technological solution with certain non-negotiable features – a closed tender is not only your best but probably the only responsible option for you to take. This will involve sending the ITT to a selection (typically 4 – 6) of potential suppliers, each of whom you believe is capable of fulfilling the requirements. If the project requires creative thinking or the deployment of transferrable skills, or you think that a new approach from those taken for previous, similar projects might be desirable, an open tender might work better. Do be aware, however, that assessing open tenders is much more time consuming than assessing closed tenders (as you are likely to get many more responses, and, it has to be said, much more “dross”, which will still need to be dealt with scrupulously and courteously).  The construction of open tenders also requires more care, as respondents, even if they are capable of delivering excellent results and therefore worth considering, won’t necessarily be on the same wavelength as you are at the beginning of the process.

All bids should be acknowledged upon receipt and read carefully and appraised according to a set of criteria, which in the case of an open bid should include assessment of transferrable skills and creativity.  If a “beauty contest” is planned – and at Gold Leaf we would encourage this if there are at least two promising candidates – only bidders who are genuinely still being considered for the project should be called to interview.  It should go without saying that this is because the ITT process involves a duty of care on both sides: the applicant owes it to the originator of the ITT to give it and any follow-up work his or her “best shot”; and the originator owes it to the applicant not to waste his or her time and money on completing extra tasks, such as presentations and business modelling and undertaking the expense of travelling to a meeting, if there is little prospect of their winning the bid.  Most emphatically, the originator of the ITT should not abuse their position of power by involving “secondary” candidates in extra work merely in order to benchmark their preferred candidate.  It cannot be emphasised enough that a formal interview that requires extra work and whose end result is a legally-binding contract for the successful candidate cannot be downplayed as a “little chat”.

Finally, once the successful candidate has been offered the project and accepted it, unsuccessful candidates should be contacted as soon as possible.  If the ITT was open and there were many respondents, it isn’t necessary to give all of them detailed feedback; a courteous thank-you and explanation that you were impressed by the many excellent applications received will suffice.  However, if the ITT was closed, all the unsuccessful applicants deserve a full explanation of why their bid was not chosen; as do all those called to interview in an open bid.

Much of the above, of course, simply requires a mixture of professionalism, good sense and courtesy. 

If you are considering going out to tender and would like assistance with any part of the process, from deciding which type of tender you need to the design of an ITT to help with assessing the resulting candidates (including the “beauty contest”), Gold Leaf will be happy to help.

Deutsch, Students, Universities

Germany: Universities of Excellence – excellent universities?

The German university system has never had an equivalent to Oxbridge, Russell Group or the Ivy League. This is partially down to the way students are admitted – there are no (or very low) tuition fees and by law each university is obliged to offer all students with a German “Abitur” (A-level/IB equivalent) a place for Higher Education. Only if a certain course has more applicants than places can the university choose – and even then the choice must purely be based on A-level results.

Therefore, German universities are pretty egalitarian and cannot chose their undergraduate students and build a profile in the same way universities in other countries do, and students tend to choose their universities mainly based on location.
In more recent years, universities have been given more freedom to choose their postgraduate and PhD students, based on criteria they themselves can set, but since that is a recently new development it has not yet resulted in the same kind of profile building as UK and US universities have perfected.

Much high-ranking German research happens outside the universities: research societies like the Max-Planck Society, the Leibnitz Association, the Fraunhofer Society or the Helmoltz Association run over 200 non-university research centres and are empowered to award PhDs and PostDoc qualifications.

It may be asked, surely there must be a difference in quality between German universities?

The DFG (“Deutsche Forschungsgemeinschaft”, German Research Foundation) is the main funding body for research at German universities and has been responsible for funding of research in all disciplines since 1937. Over the last 15 years, the DFG has recognised that in order to participate in the international exchange of research and in international university rankings, a certain “elite”  status was necessary for some universities. Therefore in 2004  the DFG started the prestigious “Universities Excellence Initiative”, which initially supported certain “clusters of excellence” at a variety of universities. Effectively, selected interdisciplinary research projects and graduate schools were being awarded special funds for developing outstanding research.

This initiative evolved and was developed further over the years, and in 2019 was re-named the “Excellence Strategy”.  It nominated a selected number of universities as “Universities of Excellence” – awarding these institutions up to €15m annualy for research over a period of 7 years.  When this period time has elapsed,  each university is re-evaluated. On 19 July 2019 the DFG announced the 11 winning universities (list see below) that have been awarded this status.

The universities had to apply for selection and were evaluated by an international commission. The initiative focuses exclusively on research output. Whether or not teaching at these universities is “excellent” remains undecided; the German Council of Science and Humanities (Wissenschaftsrat) and the German Rectors’ Conference (Hochschulrektorenkonferenz) have both made it very clear they have no plans to establish an equivalent to the TEF.

The German “Universities of Excellence” are:

  • RWTH Aachen (Rheinisch Westfälisch Technische Hochschule)
  • “Berlin University Alliance” (including FU Berlin, Humboldt University Berlin, TU Berlin and Charité)
  • University of Bonn (Rheinische Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität)
  • Technical University of Dresden
  • University of Hamburg
  • Heidelberg University (Ruprechts-Karls-Universität)
  • KIT – Karlsruhe Institute of Technology
  • University of Konstanz
  • LMU – Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich
  • Technical University of Munich
  • University of Tübingen (Eberhard-Karls-Universität).
Learning from Libraries, Libraries, Students

Learning from Libraries – Stress-busting Steven

Universities are now much more aware of the need to support students who are feeling stressed by work pressures and exams.  Librarians, of course, tend to see more of the anguish than academics, who only encounter students occasionally during the examination period. One of the more imaginative and empathetic ways that has been developed to help alleviate stress is to introduce a therapy dog to the library, to provide “animal assisted wellness”.  In 2017 MacOdrum Library at Carleton University (Ontario, Canada) appointed Uncle Steven, a dog named after his first foster carer’s uncle, to be the stress-buster-in-chief at the university. 

Uncle Steven was a rescue dog, a Basset hound saved by the Edmonton Basset Rescue Society from a “puppy mill”.  For seven years he had been kept in a crate and used as a breeding hound.  He had never been in a house or car and did not like to be near men. 

His original foster carer was unable to continue to look after him because she already had two babies and two dogs to look after.  He was therefore adopted by John Vendel and his wife Erika Banski, both of whom are librarians. 

Uncle Steven visited the MacOdrum Library for an hour and a half twice a week during the exam season.  His services were appreciated by university staff and students alike, who played with him and talked to him and found him a very effective therapy dog.  Apparently there is a scientific reason for the remarkable success these dogs are able to achieve: humans release a de-stressing hormone when petting an animal.  10 or 15 minutes spent with Uncle Steven were therefore very effective for calming students (and staff!) and motivating them to take a positive attitude towards their work. John Vendel said that the benefits were two-way: Uncle Steven had been so neglected as a young dog that he was now enjoying the attention and lapping it up. The students who petted him unanimously agreed that he had helped to calm them and make them more cheerful.  John said that he “seemed to know” how anxious students were feeling.

Here is a picture of John with Uncle Steven.  Sadly, Uncle Steven passed away in April this year.  To mark all the good work he had done, at a ceremony in the President’s office his owners, Erika  and John received a “posthumous distinction” award.  Erika is on the left of the photo, wearing a red dress; John is standing next to the President, who is holding the certificate.

Libraries, Pedagogical Resources, Students, Universities

NSS results 2019 and Learning Resources

On Wednesday, the Office for Students published the results of this year’s National Student Survey.

Each year, the NSS results spark discussions about their usefulness and whether or not they actually reflect the performance of a university overall. And every year, universities and service providers keenly await their results and national media celebrates their “winners”.
What we do know is that universities take a great deal of notice of their NSS results and often changes in teaching happen with a view on improving NSS results. This – along with increased tuition fees and student expectations – is one of the factors that contribute to the image of the “student as a customer”.

The NSS data is one of the most important metrics for the TEF, and many Student Unions, who are en large opposed to the way the TEF measures Teaching Excellence, have initiated NSS boycotts in order to invalidate results. The University of Cambridge is one of them, and has been successful for three years in a row. Once again, the response rate for Cambridge has been below the threshold of 50% required for data to be meaningful enough to be published, which means that it will again be unable to participate in the TEF.

But how did those universities do who did get a high enough response rate?

Overall, it can be said that Scottish and Welsh universities have received better feedback from their students than English ones. To the question “Overall, I’m satisfied with the quality of the course”, the University of St. Andrews received the highest number of students agreeing (95.49%). In the top 10 there are 3 Scottish (St. Andrews, Dundee and the Robert Gordon University) and 2 Welsh universities (Aberystwyth, who came second, and Swansea). The Universities of Loughborough, Keele and York top the list of English institutions.

However, these are views on the overall course, and we were particularly interested in section 6 of the NSS, which deals with Learning Resources specifically, including library resources, but also IT infrastructure and access to subject-specific equipment. Of particular interest to us was question 19 – “The library resources (e.g. books, online services and learning spaces) have supported my learning well.”

Looking at this question, students at St. Mary’s University College Belfast were the most appreciative (93.22% agreed with this statement), followed by the University of Leeds (92.85%) and the University of Dundee (92.7%). It is also interesting to see here that 19.12% of students at the University of Reading disagreed with the statement – by far the highest number of students unsatisfied with library resources; while students at Heriot-Watt and Wrexham Glyndwr University were not particularly happy either (around 10% disagreed at each).

It is difficult to come to conclusions when looking at the broad figures, which of course include all subject areas. David Kernohan of WonkHE has helpfully tried to break down the figures by subjects; looking again at question 19 through his lens, it may come as no surprise that students of specialist subjects like Minerals Technology, Computer Games and Animation, Complementary and Alternative Medicine or Drama are particularly dissatisfied with their library resources. However, subjects like Archaeology, Classics and History are also listed high on the dissatisfaction scale, and publishers and librarians should certainly take such mixed results on board. More surprising, maybe, is that students of Nursing, Microbiology and Dentistry are especially happy with their library resources.

Readers of this blog may be amused to discover that overall course dissatisfaction is particularly prevalent with students in Polymer Studies and… Publishing!