Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence


Memorandum from Dr Brian Stuart McBeth

  1.  I am writing to the Select Committee to draw attention to the problems that some university library readers have in accessing scientific and social science journals without an Athens username. According to the Athens web-site the system "provides users with single sign on to numerous web-based services throughout the UK and overseas. Athens was initially deployed in the Higher Education sector in 1996 and has firmly established itself as the de facto standard for secure access management to web-based services for the UK education and health sectors".

  2.  The position at every UK University library regarding all subscription-based electronic resources, including electronic journals, is that the institutions are bound by the restrictive licence terms negotiated and entered into by the Department of Education with Athens. The terms are explicit in that access is only authorized to current students and members of staff of the University. This gives rise to an absurd situation where a person, who is not a member of the university but who is authorized to use the library can not access a large part of the collection because of the restrictive terms of the Athens licence.

  3.  This means that bona fide readers at the Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, like me who are allowed into the library but are not current members of the university, are denied access to the online journals. As a former member of the University of Oxford with a doctorate degree, I have a reader's ticket to the Bodleian Library, but I am unable to access the online part of the collection. Apart from the rare manuscript collection, there is nothing in the "General Guide to the Bodleian Library" that states that part of the Library's collection is out of bounds to readers. Section 1.1 of the brochure states quite clearly that the resources of the Library, and anybody would assume that to mean all the relevant electronic journals and on-line resources, are available to the "the whole community of the learned". I consider myself part of that community, with two post-graduate degrees from Oxford, nine books published with reputable publishers, a further book under consideration with a US university publisher, and I am currently working on another book. (See attached list of publications, papers and conferences) It therefore came as a shock to be debarred from using the online material, especially in this electronic age. Ironically, access to the hard copies of the journals is still allowed. It is quite baffling and hard to understand that such a caste system operates within a university library, especially as there is no warning in the various publications on the library that such a barmy policy exists.

  4.  Such a policy seems incomprehensible to me, as it is clearly against scholarship, discriminatory, and a form of censorship that should not occur in publicly funded institutions, especially at one of the country's copyright libraries. It also begs the question as to how such a restrictive contract was entered into in the first place.

  5.  There is a great deal of sympathy on this matter from Sir Colin Lucas, the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Oxford, who states in a letter to me on September 22, 2003, that:

    I can sympathise with the view that it is desirable that such restrictions on access to material for the purposes of scholarship should be kept to a minimum. The fact that inequalities in the treatment of library users can arise because of the terms of the licence is one to which attention might be drawn at the national level at which negotiations for licences of this type are conducted.

  6.  I raised this matter with the Rt Hon Charles Clarke on October 6 and when I did not receive an answer, I wrote to the Prime Minister on November 15 who forwarded the correspondence back to the Education Secretary. At the time of writing, I have not received an answer from the Department of Education. The matter has now been taken up by the Rt Hon Tim Collins, MP, Shadow Secretary of State for Education, who is in correspondence with the Rt Hon Alan Johnson, the Higher Education Minister.

  7.  I attach copies of my correspondence with the Bodleian Library, the Vice Chancellor of the University of Oxford, Downing Street, the Department of Education, the Rt Hon Tim Collins, MP, and the Rt Hon Dr Ian Gibson MP (not printed)

  8.  Although the number of people affected by the above library policy is minute relative to the size of the population, it is the principle of the matter that is of importance here as it is a form of censorship that is totally distasteful and unacceptable. It is difficult to comprehend how university libraries that are publicly funded can discriminate between its readers.

February 2004

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