The Fight for Knowledge

Canada's university libraries are battling for access to cutting-edge research

John Schofield December 4 2000

The Fight for Knowledge

Canada's university libraries are battling for access to cutting-edge research

John Schofield December 4 2000

Several times a week, from the comfort of her cluttered lab, Kathy Singfield travels to the core of inner space. Through thousands of magnifications, the chemistry professor at Saint Mary's University in Halifax enters an alien universe to study linear polymers, long molecular chains that researchers are using to create state-of-the-art materials for industry. Her journey often traverses uncharted territory, and like most scientists, she relies on academic journals to keep on the cutting edge. But many of those titles are getting harder to find. Skyrocketing costs have forced Saint Mary's, like most universities, to slash journal subscriptions. Singfield now orders most of her articles from other libraries, paying out of her own pocket and slowing her progress. “I’d feel more competitive if I had everything at hand,” says Singfield, 34. “As a researcher, you need a support system that keeps you current and excited.”

When it comes to libraries, that support system has been seriously eroded, affecting everyone from senior researchers to undergraduates. According to the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, which includes 27 of the country’s largest universities, member institutions have increased their acquisition budgets by 73 per cent over the past decade. But at the same time, huge price increases and the falling loonie have slashed real spending power by more than 50 per cent. And as libraries struggle to adapt to the electronic revolution, a small group of publishers is dominating the journal business. Since 1986, average subscription prices for U.S. journals have soared by 207 per cent, and 148 per cent for Canadian publications. Yearly subscriptions to scientific, technical or medical journals, typically the most expensive, average more than $1,600.

As costs soar, libraries that belong to CARL have cancelled thousands of subscriptions—more than $25 million worth since 1995, when spending on periodicals totalled $94.2 million a year. Even so, journal budgets still account, on average, for more than two-thirds of total materials expenditures at university libraries. The problem strikes at the very heart of Canada's ability to thrive in the Information Age. “You can’t really excel at the front line without excellent libraries,” says David Pink, a theoretical physicist at St. Francis Xavier University in Antigonish, N.S. “Knowledge is power, and if we want to survive and prosper, we need knowledge.”

To make that knowledge more accessible, librarians and others in the academic community are launching bold new initiatives to counter the power of commercial publishers. Some hope to circumvent the corporate middlemen by establishing alternative journals, published electronically or through conventional means. And, increasingly, libraries are banding together to beef up their bargaining power. In a groundbreaking move, 64 Canadian universities have formed an alliance to guarantee its members electronic access to hundreds of scientific, technical and medical journals. The $50-million Canadian National Site Licensing Project is expected to start service early next year. “It’s an extremely important project for the whole country,” says Tim Mark, executive director of the Ottawa-based CARL, “because inflation and the low dollar have just ripped the guts out of acquisitions budgets.” Suzanne Fortier, vice-principal (academic) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., adds that, after years of stopgap solutions, universities now realize that the only way to reverse the relentless decline is to pool resources. “It’s a national problem,” says Fortier, “and it needs to be addressed by a national strategy.”

In many respects, the project will put participating universities on an equal footing, restoring access to journals that were cut years ago or were simply too expensive to acquire. To get it off the ground, the institutions are contributing $30 million over three years, and have won another three-year, $20-million grant from the Ottawa-based Canada Foundation for Innovation. With its combined heft, the consortium will be able to purchase licences for electronic databases at savings of up to 50 per cent, estimates Deb deBruijn, the projects executive director. Using access codes issued by their institutions, professors and students will be able to call up full-text versions of journal articles from their desktops.

Canadian universities are anxious to enjoy the benefits. Ask researchers and students at the University of Western Ontario in London. In this years ranking of North American university research libraries, released in October by the Washington-based Association of Research Libraries, Western fell 28 positions, dropping from 55th place in 1999 to 83rd. Since 1990, Western has cancelled a quarter of its journal subscriptions, despite a 50-per-cent increase in its total acquisitions budget to $9 million a year. “I’d like to use more journals, but usually they’re just not there,” says 22-year-old Wes Brown, a fourth-year student in Western’s media, information and technology program who is also studying economics. “The library is starting to be seen as just a place to study.” Some institutions have been more successful than others in capitalizing on electronic publishing to rebuild their collections. In 1997, after years of slashing hundreds of conventional print subscriptions, the University of New Brunswick began teaming with other institutions to access electronic versions of academic and mainstream journals at significant savings. Its partners include the University of Toronto and the Council of Prairie and Pacific University Libraries, a consortium of libraries in Western Canada. In one case, the advantage of group buying enabled UNB to gain electronic access to 175 journals for less than it had paid for 30 print subscriptions. The national site-licensing project will supersede many of those arrangements, freeing up money for other acquisitions. “Electronic publishing offered us an opportunity we never had with print,” says John Teskey, director of libraries. “The more libraries work together, the better off we’ll be.”

But the national library alliance will still leave many students in the cold. Only journals in the scientific, technical and medical fields will be available through the service, leaving students in the humanities and social sciences to fend for themselves. “People in the humanities and social sciences have been living in cultural poverty,” says Marc Renaud, president of the Ottawa-based Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. “I’m convinced the site-licensing project will expand because the need is so evident.”

The growth of library consortia globally bodes well for continued expansion. Membership in the International Coalition of Library Consortia has grown to more than 140 regional and national alliances since it was formed in 1997. The Canadian project itself builds on a number of regional groups. However, not until the creation of the Canadian Foundation for Innovation in 1997 did librarians conceive of a cross-country consortium. Faced with grant requests from four regional alliances, the CFI advised applicants to create a national plan. Spurred on by CARL, organizers hammered out a proposal and landed a $20-million grant for the Canadian National Site Licensing Project last year. 

Even commercial publishers are welcoming the rise of consortia. By reaching smaller universities that previously could s not afford many journals, large publishing houses can expand their customer base, generating added income and increasing visibility for their journals. Group licensing agreements are easier to negotiate and allow publishers to cut down on marketing costs.

But while consortia provide some price protection, they also entrench the commercial publishers’ control over scholarly publishing and legitimize the site-licensing system, which critics charge is inherently unfair to libraries. One problem: to maintain access—even to back issues—libraries must pay an annual fee. And once a library is part of a group licensing agreement, withdrawing can be difficult.

The dominance of the large publishers dates back to the 1950s. For hundreds of years, scholarly journals were issued by learned societies, research centres or small publishing houses. But with the boom in scientific research after the Second World War, the landscape began to change. Unable to keep up with the pace of discovery, independent periodicals soon found themselves facing increasing competition from commercially published upstarts. The founding of the influential Science Citation Index in the 1960s contributed to the emergence of prestigious core journals, which became targets for large publishing companies. In the mid-1980s, the Dutch information giant Elsevier NV owned about 350 journals. In 1992, it merged with U.K.-based Reed International Pic, and today it boasts more than 1,200 journals. With its $7-billion purchase in October of Harcourt’s scientific, technical and medical journals and its education and testing division, Reed Elsevier is poised to grow even larger. Says Jean-Claude Guédon, a science historian and professor of comparative literature at the Université de Montréal: “The publishers quickly realized that if they could lay their hands on these core journals, they could make a killing.”


Each year, the Association of Research Libraries ranks the libraries of its university membership—North American institutions that emphasize research and graduate instruction at the doctoral level. The ranking is based on ARL’s measure of five indicators: volume holdings, volume acquisitions, current periodical subscriptions, professional and support staff, plus total library expenditures. In total, 111 university libraries were ranked, based on information relating to 1998-1999.


1. Harvard 2 Yale

3. Stanford

4. Toronto

5. California, Berkeley

6. California, Los Angeles

7. Michigan

8. Illinois, Urbana

9. Columbia

10. Cornell

11. Texas

12. Washington


30. Alberta

31. UBC 

57. McGill 

76. York 

83. Western 

92. Laval

104. Queen’s

106. Saskatchewan

107. Manitoba

109. Waterloo

110. McMaster

111. Guelph

The economics are undeniably attractive. Profit margins of 35 to 40 per cent for major academic journals are not uncommon. In the interests of academic independence, researchers are not paid for their reports. Nor are the peer-review panels that select studies for publication. To promote their careers, the best researchers want to be published in the most respected journals. And each industry merger seems to fuel price hikes.

The rise of electronic publishing in the early 1990s initially presented a serious threat to the dominance of the corporate giants. The cost of displaying an article online was minuscule. But in a shrewd move aimed at protecting their turf, publishers suddenly changed their business model. They developed electronic versions of their journals and bundled them in databases. Then, instead of selling individual subscriptions, they sold site licences allowing online access to a collection of periodicals, but only for the duration of the contract—and at a steep price.

For libraries, alliances appear to provide the best defence— and the trend is picking up. Australia is watching the Canadian National Site Licensing Project with interest, and plans to establish a similar consortium next year. “But we’re not assuming that what we’re doing now is the endgame,” says Tom Sanville, co-ordinator for the International Coalition of Library Consortia and the director of OhioLink, a U.S. statewide consortium. “It’s a step in a long process.”

Back in her Halifax lab, Kathy Singfield is anxious to benefit from that step. The national library alliance, she says, will make her a more efficient researcher. “It’ll keep me as up-to-date as I should be,” says the chemist. “It’s exciting to think of the possibilities.” And the discoveries that lie ahead. EH