MUN cancels 1,700 journals, as national association says libraries in 'crisis'

Memorial University has cancelled its subscription to more than 1,700 academic journals, as universities across the country struggle with ballooning publisher prices and a weak Canadian dollar.

Canadian universities feeling the crunch of skyrocketing subscription costs, publisher oligopoly

Memorial University is one of many universities across Canada dealing with the effects of an 'oligopoly' of academic publishers. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Memorial University of Newfoundland has cancelled its subscription to more than 1,700 academic journals, as universities across the country struggle with ballooning publisher prices and a weak Canadian dollar.

"It's an unfortunate situation, but it reflects the fiscal reality," said MUN's interim head librarian Louise White.

"It is a national problem. It's a global problem really." 

As of January, MUN's library ended its subscription to four major publisher packages, which collectively contained around 4,000 journals and cost $1.4 million.

Louise White, MUN's interim head librarian, said there were many consultations in deciding which journals to keep and which to cut. (Submitted by Kristine Power)

MUN will individually re-subscribe to 220 of those journals. It will also re-subscribe for roughly 2,000 journals through cheaper third-party companies, however, these companies restrict access to new articles until a year after they are published.

White said the library doesn't want to be in this situation, but that it can simply no longer keep up with skyrocketing subscription costs.

Journal publishers increase their price by five to 15 per cent each year, compounded by the fact that MUN pays for 85 per cent of its journals in U.S. dollars.

With a plummeting loonie, White said journals are more expensive than ever.

National association says libraries in 'crisis'

MUN is one of many universities struggling with pricey journal subscriptions. The University of Western Ontario, the University of Saskatchewan and the University of Regina have all announced similar cancellations in recent months.

There is a point where it's important for the academic libraries to push back to the publishers, to say this is an unsupportable, unsustainable pricing system.- Susan Haigh, Canadian Association of Research Libraries

The Canadian Association of Research Libraries issued a statement Wednesday calling the situation a "crisis."

The association said that libraries have been under growing stress in recent years. Journal costs rose by 25 per cent in the past four years while most library budgets remained stable or decreased.

"The libraries have had to manage this situation for some time, but suddenly with the fall of the dollar it's really become a definite deficit situation for I think all of [the universities] really," said Susan Haigh, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries.

Students and professors rely on academic journals to do research and stay up-to-date in their field of study. (Laura Howells/CBC)

Haigh said that some universities have been compensating by not spending as much on resources like books or staff, while others like MUN are cancelling large journal packages.

"The libraries are trying to act responsibly. They try very hard to build strong collections, the best collections they can possibly afford for their students and researchers," said Haigh.

"At the same time there is a point where it's important for the academic libraries to push back to the publishers, to say this is an unsupportable, unsustainable pricing system."

Publishing system an oligopoly

Vincent Larivière, a researcher at the University of Montreal, has studied the academic journal publishing system extensively.

He says that academic publishers are an oligopoly, with the five largest publishers controlling 50 per cent of all academic articles.
While some academic journals publish in print the majority are online, making them very cheap for publishers to disseminate. (CBC)

These publishers make profit margins of up to 40 per cent, since the authors of articles are not paid and online journals cost virtually nothing to reproduce.

"Over the last 25 years roughly, the prices of scientific journals has increased 400 per cent while inflation has basically been 100 per cent," Larivière said.

"The thing that publishers have understood very well is the dependency that scholars have on the scientific journals they control."

Not only do faculty and students need access to journals for their own research, he said they also need journals in order to publish their work and build their career.

Journals sold in large, unflexible packages

Larivière said in more recent years publishers have also started selling journals in massive packages, containing many journals that universities don't use.

The thing that publishers have understood very well is the dependency that scholars have on the scientific journals they control.-Vincent Larivière, University of Montreal

"It's a little bit like what's happening with cable companies, where you need to take many, many television stations in order to have access to the few ones that you need."

"It is quite a waste. And it's very difficult for [the libraries], from a negotiation point-of-view, to go to the publishers."

Library consulted with faculty, students

MUN spends $7.5 million on its journal collection. White said that even with the cancellations, the library will still run a deficit this year, although she is not yet sure how large it will be.

The library consulted with faculty and students to decide which journals to keep and which to cancel.

About the Author

Laura Howells

CBC News

Laura Howells is a journalist from St. John's who's now working in Toronto.

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