The Joint Information Systems Committee's bid to procure a united national service providing journal abstracts, full text, indexing services and other electronic content has been abandoned amid claims that the procurement process was flawed.
The services are currently provided by Nesli, the National Electronic Site Licensing Initiative, and Chest, the Combined Higher Education Software Team.
Nesli was set up in 1999 for three years and is run by Swets Blackwell and Manchester University. Chest is operated by EduServe, a non-profit organisation established two years ago after Bath University set up the initiative in 1988.
Lorcan Dempsey, director of the JISC's Distributed National Electronic Resource division, said the procurement process was initiated because Nesli was coming to the end of its three-year life. The JISC believed the services it provided and those offered by Chest ought to be combined to offer "a simpler, clearer process and to achieve some economy of scale".
However, only one bid was received, from a consortium led by Swets Blackwell and including Chest and Manchester University, and it would have maintained the status quo.
Deputy DNER director Alicia Wise wrote in an email to the academic community that the JISC decided to abort the process due to "the absence of competition, serious concern over high prices and a lack of detail regarding the nature of the services offered".
Nigel Lodge, deputy chief executive of EduServe, has attacked the process. He said it was wrong to tender for the services provided by Chest, as it was a non-profit organisation that was financially supported by the funding councils.
He criticised the tender document, calling it "appallingly written and biased". Its structure meant that the consortium was unable to comply with the tender's requirements, as doing so would have given too much control to the JISC.
Mr Lodge said that at least two organisations invited by the JISC to tender declined to do so for these reasons. He said "amateurs" put out the tender and had "missed the principal guidelines of good practice".
Asked whether the JISC believed that the procurement process had been poorly run, Dr Dempsey said: "We would not agree with that."
In the wake of the decision to abandon the process, a task force has been set up to pursue contingency arrangements and options for the longer term.
Dr Dempsey said that the task force was "charged with looking at how we take the process forward... We need to reassure the community that something will be in place and that the objectives of providing a good service are met."