Perspectives and experiences of university libraries

The floor was given to three Canadian university librarians, who described their institutions’ activities and discussed the challenges raised by open access and digital publication:

Maureen Clapperton – Library of the École des hautes études commerciales (HEC) in Montréal

Martha Whitehead – Queen’s University Library, Kingston

Leslie Weir – Libraries of the University of Ottawa


1. Library of HEC Montréal by Maureen Clapperton, Director

The library of HEC Montréal is medium-sized, with 28 employees and a budget of $5.5 million, including $2.3 for acquisitions. Over the last 10 years, the HEC has maintained its acquisition budget (for both paper and digital documents) despite the budget reduction caused by the rise in the US dollar – which means that in reality there has been an increase in the acquisitions budget. Today, nearly 80% of the budget is spent on digital collections – whereas 10 years ago, there was not even a single digital document in the library’s collections.

With respect to open access, we can say that HEC Montréal “got off to a slow start,” but it has taken swift action since. It has created an institutional repository, taking into account the policies of funding bodies, which now require researchers to publish the findings of publicly funded research in open access. HEC Montréal had been studying the creation of such a repository since 2005, and a budget was almost allocated for the project in 2010, but finally did not become concrete until 2015. Given the vision of the school, which wants to continue distinguishing itself on the institutional scale as a major institution for research and knowledge transfer in all areas of management, HEC Montréal is favourable to open access, but not at the expense of excellence, prestige or the impact factor. Thus, the HEC’s 2015-2020 strategic plan for research and knowledge transfer does not mention the term open access – even though measures have been taken to create an institutional repository.   

In order to meet the requirements of funding bodies and enable the library to position itself strategically in relation to open access, a number of projects have been set up. The library is working in collaboration with the Desjardins International Institute for Cooperatives on a virtual library project. A call for tenders has been made to find software for setting up an institutional repository beginning in March 2016. A partnership with the HEC Montréal Research Office has also been established. A new librarian specializing in metadata has been hired, while a librarian specializing in digital initiatives will soon join the team. Finally, the library will adopt a communications strategy to insist on the co-existence of two models, namely, open access collections and classical collections. In conclusion, yes, HEC Montréal is favourable to open access, but not at any price.


2. Queen’s University Library by Martha Whitehead, Vice-rector and University Librarian

Queen’s University is medium-sized, but has, in particular, a PhD program in medicine. As is the case in universities everywhere in Canada and Québec, the libraries at Queen’s have suffered especially severe budget cuts. Not only has its acquisitions budget been reduced, but its operating budget also. Above all, the library has endured a 30% cut in its team of librarians. This era of massive cuts to their budgets has led libraries to review their commitment to the print paradigm and to turn towards the new forms of digital publication.

During this same period of cuts, the share of the acquisitions budget reserved for subscriptions to the journals of the five major commercial publishers[1] has had to be doubled in order to keep up with the increase in rates that they have imposed. This has required cutting the budget for monograph acquisitions in half. The constraints imposed by the five major publishers thus directly affect the libraries’ abilities to develop their collections, and thus to fulfil their mandates with respect to research and teaching. The situation is such that the libraries are forced to acquire items they do not really want at the expense of items that they would like to purchase. Given rising inflation and the drop in the value of the Canadian dollar, libraries have begun the fiscal year with major deficits, which has forced them to adopt strategies to manage the shortfalls. They now have to be very prudent in their choice of subscriptions to scholarly journals. They also question the relevance of bibliographic databases when what really interests them is access to plain text. Finally, preference is now given to purchasing documents in electronic form rather than on paper owing to accessibility, acquisition costs, operations and space concerns: maintaining printed documents is now a problem. The new monograph acquisition plan stipulates that paper monographs are now purchased uniquely upon request from graduate students and professors. The objective is to reduce the deficit within four years. 

In other words, the financial picture painted here is worrisome, but it is not exceptional. It is similar to what is happening in other university libraries in Canada. However, in addition to being a librarian at Queen’s, Clapperton sits on the board of McGill-Queen’s University Press, and she is pleased that the Press will be able to survive thanks to sales to the libraries of Queen’s University and those in the CRKN: such sales provide the largest share of the Press’ income. A balance is thus being maintained, despite everything.

Even before these budget cuts and financial difficulties, Queen’s University libraries were acknowledging the advantages of digital publication and in particular open access through an overall strategy for documentary resources. Notably, the strategy involves open educational resources, the issue of complying with copyright for course collections, the hiring of a librarian for open government, the fact of considering research data as complementary to publications, and support for publications in their transition towards open access.   

In 2014, a position intentionally entitled “scholarly publishing librarian,” rather than “scholarly communications librarian,” was created. The purpose has been to point out that the libraries are functioning within an ecosystem of scholarly publishing in transition from printed to digital documents, and from commercial publications to open access, an ecosystem that libraries have to both understand and influence.  


This influence is deployed in accordance with three inter-related aspects:

-          First, the libraries have to create an attractive infrastructure by hosting open access scholarly journals with the solutions developed by the Public Knowledge Project and Scholars Portal, through dissemination of research done at Queen’s University thanks to filing in the institutional repository, by integrating the repository into professors’ institutional CVs and into the system of annual reports in order to increase the number of documents filed, and by constantly reminding researchers that using the repository increases their visibility and improves access to their work.  

-          Second, the libraries have to communicate with one another in order to change an institutional culture turned against open access, and in which, for example, the belief persists that open access publishing is poor quality, and that it is too costly in terms of time and investment that should be devoted to research. In order to deal with this cultural challenge, a working group on scholarly publishing has been created, bringing together people from the university’s research office as well as graduate students in order to answer the questions raised by open access and share relevant practical information. The results of these actions are beginning to make themselves felt since we have seen an increase in the number of open access publications in accordance with the green route (self-archiving).

-          Finally, although Queen’s has not yet adopted an open access policy, it is the third sphere of influence targeted by the libraries. For this, it is maintaining constant dialogue around the advantages of open access to increase the impact factor. This dialogue is beginning to have an effect on researchers, and it will, the university hopes, also influence the discussion surrounding the hiring and promotion of professors, as well as book culture.

In conclusion, Queen’s University’s libraries are facing a difficult, long-term financial challenge, which places strong pressure on purchasing monographs and subscriptions to traditional journals, but they also have plans to invest more in open access publishing and dissemination. However, they are wondering about the relevance of funding an open access system that simply reproduces the traditional system of scholarly publishing: a more radical change is required. At the very moment when we are expressing this dream, it has been shown that the traditional publishing system is no longer viable and has to be abandoned. Scholarly publishing is thus ready to embark upon a transition towards another system that will take into account the real cost of publishing – and not the cost that has been artificially inflated by the five major publishers. We are thus impatient to work in collaboration within a partnership between librarians and publishers.



3. Libraries of the University of Ottawa by Leslie Weir, Head Librarian

The University of Ottawa is bilingual and has 43,000 students. Like Queen’s, we have programs in medicine and law. In early December 2009, the university launched a major program for open access. The program was supported by Mona Nemer, Vice-Rector, Research, as well as a member of the Faculty of Law, Michael Geist; a member of the Faculty of Medicine, Claire Kendall; and finally Leslie Weir, Head Librarian. The program initially led to the creation of an institutional repository, a $100,000 authors’ fund (to pay article publication fees), and a position for a scholarly publications librarian. At the same time, open access publication of digital versions of monographs was set up jointly with the University of Ottawa Press. The program also instituted compulsory electronic filing of PhD theses. Regarding scholarly journals, an open access publication service was established with Open Journal Systems and Scholars Portal. Finally, 60,000 monographs in French in the public domain (published before 1923) were digitalized in collaboration with Internet Archive and the University of Toronto.

In 2011, the open-access monograph program entered into a partnership with the University of Ottawa Press. It makes it possible to publish an open access version of three monographs in the new acquisitions catalogue each year. The libraries contribute $10,000 per monograph to this, for a total of $30,000. After the end of the first 3-year phase of the project, the program was renewed and increased to cover a total of 4 monographs a year – with $40,000 in financial participation from the libraries. The idea behind the program was to study what happens when a new monograph is published in open access at the same time as a for-purchase paper version in order to assess the sustainability of such a program. Once the study has been completed, the findings will be published. However, the data that have already been gathered show that monographs available in open access have the benefits of greater visibility and distribution of a greater number of copies, even in terms of paper copies. These findings thus show that the program is a real success.  

However, things did not go as well with the authors’ fund created in 2009. Given an initial annual budget of $100,000 in 2014, the fund required more than $350,000. In September 2014, the fund had to be suspended because it had already been emptied, even though only 4 months had gone by since May 2014, the beginning of the fiscal year. It was decided that such a fund for supporting the open access model based on article publication fees was not financially sustainable: instead of reducing the costs arising from commercial content, it increased them.

The abandoned authors’ fund was replaced by strategic membership in various open access initiatives, such as Plos One, BioMed Central, PeerJ, Knowledge Unlatched, the Érudit-CRKN partnership and Open Book Publishers. The libraries of the University of Ottawa are impatient to work in collaboration in accordance with a multiparty cooperation system because the present model for open access, based on article publication fees, does not work. Finally, there is no need for a reminder that the subscription-based model is no longer sustainable. The University of Toronto Library has just paid its bill to the publisher Elsevier: $3.9 million. The traditional model of scholarly publishing is broken. It needs to be replaced.


[1] There are five “major commercial publishers” with a monopoly over scholarly publishing: Elsevier, Wiley-Blackwell, Springer, Taylor & Francis, Thomson-Reuthers.