A Plea for Page Numbers!

The corner of a printed book with a page number in position

In recent interviews conducted by the user research team at EBSCO, readers of academic texts revealed that they are hesitant to embrace ebooks provided in EPUB format despite its many benefits. What causes the most trepidation for users and librarians is a lack of confidence that citations generated from EPUB-formatted ebooks without page numbers will be accepted by faculty.

Inclusive Publishing Partner, EBSCO, explores the reasons behind this and how we can remedy this situation.

The Page Number Conundrum for Students

The interviews mentioned above also showed that citations are not the only reason for concern when page numbers are missing. There is additional concern that a lack of page numbers will negatively affect long-term reproducibility of research. This means that some users are avoiding EPUB for academic purposes because they fear their grades will suffer. It is worth pointing out that EPUB offers publishers the opportunity to include page numbers in their content but, as you will read later on in this article, it’s not always a feature that is reliably utlized.

Several users noted that they would seek out a PDF or print version of an ebook if they needed to cite a specific passage or quote rather than use the EPUB version because they worried that their professors wouldn’t accept a citation with only chapter, section, and paragraph number. This is how major style guides recommend quoting from ebooks without page numbers (APA’s recommendation), and a quick internet search will return countless LibGuides providing this guidance. However, publishers take note: to the student, if a professor won’t accept that approach, they aren’t willing to take that risk, and they will seek an alternate format. This potentially prevents the reader from enjoying the full EPUB experience.

Based on user feedback, the EBSCO eBooks team hypothesizes that this is one of the more significant factors driving users to the PDF version when available. The preference for PDF is clear in our usage data:

users access PDF five times more often than EPUB, even though 57% of all EBSCO eBooks have an EPUB version available, and 77% of front-list ebooks have an EPUB version available.

We conclude that it’s not a lack of access to an EPUB version driving the high usage of PDF.

Ultimately, this inclination toward PDF does users a great disservice because EPUBs offer much flexibility to readers, as outlined in this DAISY white paper: users can easily modify the font size and style, background color, spacing, and layout of an EPUB-formatted ebook. Additionally, because EPUB is HTML-based, the text is always available to assistive technologies like screen readers and text-to-speech tools, the content responds to the user’s device type and screen size, and the robust linking and wayfinding elements make reading much easier for users with accessibility needs than a PDF-formatted ebook.

Prevalence of Publisher-Supplied Page Numbers in EPUB

It is true that EPUB-formatted ebooks can (and often do) include page numbers from the publisher, making them as reliable as the PDF or print version (the EPUB specification outlines how to do this). When provided by the publisher, we display those page numbers in the EBSCO eBooks online reader to support wayfinding and generating accurate and reproducible citations.

Accessibility experts like DAISY provide robust guidance on different ways for publishers to insert page numbers into their EPUBs such as:

However, because EBSCO validates each EPUB file we receive (using Ace, by DAISY, plus a custom validator developed by EBSCO), we can see that many EPUBs do not have page numbers included. From our validation, which looks for one of the most common approaches for including EPUB page numbers, we see that only about 30% of the 1.5+ million EPUB files we’ve received include page numbers using that approach. This is a great start, but it still means up to one million EPUB-formatted ebooks in our system may have no publisher-supplied page numbers. We plan to adjust our validation to include other pagination approaches supported by the EPUB specification to ensure that we have a fuller picture of what publishers are doing to include page numbers.

In 2022, we surveyed EBSCO’s 1,000+ ebook publishers about the use of page numbers in EPUB to better understand how they were thinking about providing pagination information and to determine if we could rely on consistently getting this data from them to support the desired user experience for navigation and citations. Some key findings from the survey were that:

  • 22% of respondents indicated that all their EPUBs included page numbers.
  • 31% noted that only some of their EPUBs included page numbers (some cases mentioned by these publishers where page numbers would always be used were front-list titles, fixed layout EPUBs, and EPUB3s only).
  • When asked if they planned to ensure that their entire EPUB catalog included page numbers, 44% of responding publishers said no, either due to budget restrictions or workflow complexity.

These responses confirmed for us that although we can expect to receive publisher-supplied page information for a meaningful number of EPUBs, we cannot rely on it as a complete solution.

Path Forward

Our goal is to encourage more users to prefer EPUB by eliminating hurdles and objections in the academic environment.

We’ve consistently received feedback from users and the accessibility community (such as DAISY’s findings from testing our online reader) that some kind of EPUB pagination or location is critical for ease of use, so we’re thoughtfully determining how to provide for the desired user experience in our online EPUB reader using publisher-supplied data when available, as well as another progress indicator that will not create a new pain point for researchers, faculty, or librarians when citing an EPUB.

Some kind of EPUB pagination or location is critical for ease of use

Additionally, EBSCO regularly provides publishers with a production scorecard, which includes key findings on their content and recommendations to improve. One area that we plan to include in the scorecard is an indicator showing if page numbers are supplied in a publisher’s EPUBs. Our hope is that by informing publishers that we consider page numbers to be critical to the user experience, it will help to underscore the importance of page numbers with publishers and will drive up the number of EPUBs provided with publisher-supplied page numbers, especially for front-list and high-use ebook titles.

Call to Action

Publishers, please provide EPUBs with page numbers following the EPUB spec! If you want more information about how your EPUBs meet validation requirements, please contact our ebook Production team.

Our thanks to the team at EBSCO for this article. As an established market leader with more than 80 years’ experience delivering products to libraries, EBSCO Information Services provides access to more than two million EBSCO eBooks on our platform and works with more than one thousand different ebook publishers and thousands of libraries worldwide. To learn more about EBSCO’s commitment to accessibility, visit this page on EBSCO Connect