Health Canada decision raises debate over cost-saving of electronic journals
By David Secko | January 25, 2006
Science librarians are questioning the logic behind an announcement that Health Canada will shortly cut its library budget by 50% -- a decision they say will affect the ability of government scientists, clinicians, and policy makers to do their jobs.
This month, Health Canada announced that it plans to cut the budget of its six Ottawa-based health science libraries over the next three years, potentially reducing its library staff by 60%, said Ken Sato, Acting Director General of the Office of Biotechnology and Science at Health Canada.
"The decision is based on a government-wide expenditure management review," Sato told The Scientist. "Library services were identified as an area for reduction," he added, since growing access to electronic journals and other scientific information allows libraries to cut print journals, and hence the staff that attend to them.
However, Tamsin Adams-Webber, president of the Canadian Health Libraries Association (CHLA) and a current librarian at Toronto's Hospital for Sick Children, told The Scientist that it's incorrect to assume that switching to an electronic format saves money.
Indeed, librarians suggest that budget cuts based on future paid electronic access may instead increase costs. "With no library to assess needs and coordinate and negotiate purchases and licenses, individual scientists and departments may purchase these resources directly, resulting in expensive duplication, limited or ineffective access, and cost premiums," Adams-Webber and her colleagues argue in a written response to Health Canada to be posted on the CHLA Web site, and provided to The Scientist.
A virtual library collection "takes MORE time and MORE skill with competencies that are of a higher level than it does to manage a paper collection," according to a blog by the Ottawa chapter of the Canadian Association of Special Libraries and Information Services.
With library budgets getting cut, there is a moment of crisis coming for journal publishers, since subscription rates seem to be inflating faster than library funding, said Peter Suber, a professor of philosophy at Earlham College. Meanwhile, there has been some movement in scientific publishing towards open access journals, which provide literature without subscription fees. Reducing the library budget "doesn't make open access more viable, but is does give publishers more incentive to look at alternative business models, of which open access is one type," Suber, an advocate of open access, told The Scientist.
Currently, the government is developing a pilot program called the Federal Science eLibrary. The initiative provides full electronic desktop text access to 2,700 journals for three Canadian sites, said Beverly Brown, a program manager with the eLibrary. However, "it's important to know that there is no funding for this initiative yet," Brown told The Scientist, although it's expected to attract a significant amount. Given the still-unknown future of the eLibrary, these library cuts are short-sighted, said Jessie McGowan, a medical research librarian at the University of Ottawa.
McGowan noted that because Canada doesn't have a national health library, like the National Library of Medicine in U.S., it relies on collaboration between libraries across the country to provide good sources of information. "So when you see Health Canada making cuts, it hurts not just Health Canada, but all research in the country, because we are so interdependent on each other," said McGowan.
However, Sato told The Scientist that it's difficult to predict how the Health Canada library cuts will affect scientists, since it's not clear how the cuts will be implemented.
Nevertheless, Sato agreed that officials need to explore any hidden costs in turning to electronic access. "But, from a net change perspective, there would be less in the way of infrastructure costs" in turning to electronic access in libraries, he said. "We want to ensure timely access to scientific information for our scientists, so this is our guiding principle in this undertaking," said Sato.
Links within this article
CBC News: Budget cuts threaten health-science librarieshttp://www.cbc.ca/story/science/national/2006/01/10/health-libraries20060110.html
Canadian Health Libraries Association
Special Info & Musings for Ottawa IM Professionals
S. Pincock, "Will open access work?" The Scientist, October 10, 2005.
Canadian Federal Science eLibrary
D. Payne, "Canadian research compromised?" The Scientist, November 24, 2004.