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Canadian Science Publishing took over NRC Research Press journals in fall 2010 and started charging for journal articles as of Jan. 1. (iStock)

The public has lost free online access to more than a dozen Canadian science journals as a result of the privatization of the National Research Council's government-owned publishing arm.

Scientists, businesses, consultants, political aides and other people who want to read about new scientific discoveries in the 17 journals published by National Research Council Research Press now either have to pay $10 per article or get access through an institution that has an annual subscription.

The new fees have been in effect since Jan. 1, but their impact will likely only become truly apparent over time as the cost of purchasing what are usually monthly or bi-monthly journals piles up.

Back issues published between the 1950s and December 2010 remain freely accessible online to Canadians.

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The new fees apply only to articles published after December 2010. Back issues are still freely available online. ((NRC Research Press))

In today's information-based society, many non-academics, including political aides, people who work at granting councils, businesses, consultants, journalists, non-profit groups and health-care professionals need to consult published scientific research, says Leslie Weir, chair of the Ontario Council of University Libraries and chief librarian at the University of Ottawa.

'People have cancelled something else to be able to keep this.'— Leslie Weir, University of Ottawa chief librarian

"You can't actually identify a group that doesn't need at least some access," Weir said. "The academic community, which is very supportive of open access, was very disappointed to see this change in direction."

Canadian Science Publishing, a not-for-profit company, took over NRC Research Press journals in September 2010 after a federal government review decided scientific publishing should not be a government function. However, it maintained free online access to new articles until December.

Privatization pluses

Cameron Macdonald, executive director of NRC Research Press, said privatization has given the publisher a lot more flexibility than when it was owned by the government.

The publisher can now actively promote the journals, Macdonald said.

"We do press communiqués now on interesting papers," he said.

In the two years before privatization, news releases needed to be approved by the Privy Council Office. A former communications officer for the NRC Research Press told CBC News in September that the publisher stopped sending out releases, as it sometimes took months to get them approved.

Macdonald said privatization also means more flexibility in procurement rules, which is important given that the press competes with journal publishers internationally.

"It's very difficult to run an internationally competitive business in the framework of the government. They're just not set up for that," he said. "So, now it's a … better business environment."

Weir said the journals, which publish research from around the world, represent the only scientific-focused press of its kind in Canada.

"It really is kind of a jewel," she said.

About 30 academic institutions across Canada have now lost access to some or all of the journals in the collection, said Weir.

Another 44 universities bought subscriptions to the full set of journals for $12,000 through an agreement negotiated by the Canadian Research Knowledge Network. The network's executive director, Deb deBruijn, says that price is very affordable. She suggested institutions that did not buy full subscriptions were likely interested in only a few of the journals or weren't very science-focused.

But Weir thinks some may not have been able to afford what she sees as a significant extra cost for libraries with budgets that are already stretched.

"People have cancelled something else to be able to keep this," she said of the libraries that bought full subscriptions.

'Very little' impact on scientists

Cameron Macdonald, executive director of Canadian Science Publishing, said the impact of the change in access is "very little" on the average scientist across Canada because subscriptions have been purchased by many universities, federal science departments and scientific societies.

"I think the vast majority of researchers weren't all that concerned," he said. "So long as the journals continued with the same mission and mandate, they were fine with that."

Macdonald said the journals were never strictly open access, as online access was free only inside Canadian borders and only since 2002.

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In today's information-based society, many non-academics need access to new scientific research, says Leslie Weir, chief librarian at the University of Ottawa. ((Robert J. Lacombe/Courtesy of Leslie Weir))

People in other countries had to buy subscriptions, which provided the bulk of the publisher's revenue. The rest of its funding came from the federal government's depository services program, which distributes published government information for Canadian libraries.

That was the funding that Canadian Science Publishing lost when it was privatized. It is using Canadian subscriptions to make up for that hole in its budget. Macdonald said researchers continue to have the option to make their articles open access — freely accessible around the world — if they pay the press a $3,000 fee, an option that has been available for three or four years.

But he admitted that option is only used for about 10 to 12 articles a year.

"Researchers are loath to spend valuable grant money on it," he said.

Victoria Arbour, a University of Alberta graduate student, published her research in the Canadian Journal of Earth Sciences, one of the Canadian Science Publishing journals, both before and after it was privatized. She said it "definitely is too bad" that her new articles won't be available to Canadians free online.

"It would have been really nice," she said. But she said most journals aren't open access, and the quality of the journal is a bigger concern than open access when choosing where to publish.

"It's pretty prohibitively expensive to make things open access, I find," she said.

Weir said more and more open-access journals need to impose author fees to stay afloat nowadays.

Meanwhile, the cost of electronic subscriptions to research journals has been ballooning as library budgets remain frozen, she said.

So far, no one has come up with a solution to the problem. But Weir suggests that if publishers such as Canadian Science Publishing are committed to open access, they could make their articles available online after a certain period following publication.

She also would like other Canadian granting councils that provide public funding to researchers to follow the lead of the Canadian Institutes for Health Research and require research funded with public money to be openly available.