Saturday, March 01, 2008

The Access Gap in British Columbia


This post illustrates the gap in access when we rely on subscriptions, a gap that is huge even in a have province like British Columbia, in a wealthy country like Canada. A researcher who does not see the costs of the subscriptions, may never see the gap. A student, while at a research university, has ready access to tens of thousands of scholarly journals, backed up by a document delivery department that can fill any remaining gaps. A student who graduates and moves to a smaller town or rural area will still have better access than many of the people in the world, thanks to BC's excellent public library system; however, this is still less than 5% of what the alumnus had access to as a student. A small public library cannot begin to dream of providing an equivalent service to the university, with much fewer staff and a much greater gap to fill.


For a student or faculty member at a research university, the huge gap in access to subscription-based information that exists even in a have province like BC, in a wealthy country like Canada, may not be apparent. After all, a researcher at a top-notch research university like the University of British Columbia has immediate, direct access to over 56,000 journals, and never sees the cost. If an item is not in the collection, no problem - there is a world-class document delivery service available, at no cost to the researcher.

Students enjoy this level of access at no cost, too - until they graduate. This is when we see the access gap.

Consider the alumnus who settles in a small town or rural area. There, they may have access to an above-average selection of subscription journals through their local public library, thanks to a government and population in BC that understands the importance of public libraries, and supports them. This alumnus may have access to over 2,600 full-text peer-reviewed journals, in the EBSCO packages Academic Search Elite and Business Source Premiere.

The local public library will have interlibrary loan service; however, with limited staffing looking after everything from storytime for preschoolers to special services for teens, adults, seniors, and more, not to mention buying books and running the library, the public library cannot begin to think about providing the same level of service as a university document delivery service, with a much smaller gap to fill.

Public library access to scholarly journals in BC is a very good thing - but it is still less than 5% of what the alumnus had ready access to when in school. Subscriptions to academic journals cost hundreds to thousands of dollars, and pay-per-view is about $25 per item, and up.

The research university likely is able to provide walk-in access to most of the scholarly literature. For the alumnus far from the large metropolitan centre, though, this means travel costs and a significant time factor.

Most alumni probably just don't try to keep up with the scholarly literature. This would be a good topic for a research study.

This is really unfortunate, not just for the alumnus, but for all of us. Some of these grads are professionals - doctors and other health care professionals, teachers, engineers, lawyers, librarians. The more these people can access the research literature, the better for all of us. Some of these grads are no doubt entrepreneurs, looking for business solutions that are environmentally friendly. Why not share the latest research with these folks and increase their chances to succeed?

This is BC, of course. In other, less-wealthy areas of the world, the gap is much larger.

Fortunately for everyone on the wrong side of the access gap, there are a great many open access resources already, and the numbers are growing dramatically. There are more than 3,200 fully open access, peer-reviewed journals listed in DOAJ, and the number of titles in the last couple of months has been increasing at a rate of more than 4 new titles per calendar day. Scientific Commons provides access to close to 18 million items.

Scholars, please join the open access movement and share the results of your work with your neighbours - the people in BC and Canada who pay the taxes that fund much of your research and support the university you work for, and our global neighbours everywhere. Some of them are your alumni. Someday, when you retire, they will be you.