Journal subscriptions at risk as weak pound hits library budgets

Research-intensive institutions appeal for 'exchange rate funding'. Zoe Corbyn reports

January 1, 2009

The fall in the value of the pound is having a "crippling effect" on the budgets of UK university libraries, major bodies within the sector have warned.

Costs of subscriptions to overseas research journals from the US and Europe have increased because of changes in the exchange rate that have seen the pound fall by about 25 per cent in value against the dollar and the euro since July 2008.

The increased cost is a "significant problem" because libraries at large research-intensive institutions typically spend 75 per cent of their acquisition budgets on journals, according to Research Libraries UK (RLUK), which represents the major research libraries in the UK, and the Research Information Network (RIN), which promotes the information needs of researchers.

"The danger is that libraries will be forced to start cancelling journals," said Mark Brown, chair of RLUK and head of the library at the University of Southampton.

Tony Kidd, assistant director of Glasgow University Library, another RLUK member, explained that journals priced in US dollars, which used to account for about 25 per cent of the library's journals budget, were now costing it 37 per cent more than a year ago. Journals priced in euros, which accounted for about 40 per cent, now cost an additional 19 per cent.

"At Glasgow, we have had to ask for additional 'exchange rate funding' of more than £400,000 this year," he said.

He estimated that every time the pound went down either a euro cent or a US cent over a year, it would cost his library £12,000 and £7,000, respectively.

"This is having a crippling effect on all RLUK libraries," he said. "Because such a large proportion of our spend is on overseas material, (exchange rates) probably affect libraries more severely than any other part of the university."

He said that while recent VAT reductions had been helpful, there was still a "longstanding anomaly" in the system that saw libraries pay VAT on electronic information resources, such as electronic journal subscriptions, but not on print books or journals.

"The Government really needs to look at this ... there have been continuing campaigns to level the playing field (but) it becomes more important in the current climate and as libraries rely more on online information provision," he said.

The RIN is currently conducting an emergency study to build up a fuller picture of the exchange-rate problem.

Director Michael Jubb said that because "well over half" of libraries' subscriptions to journals were in euros or dollars, the impact on the subscription budget was "very large indeed".

He stressed that this was happening at a time when it was also "becoming clear" that good library and information services were critical to research performance.

Open-access journals, which do not require library subscriptions, could ameliorate the situation, but Dr Brown said they still had a long way to go.

"We are still fundamentally in a commercial environment for research journals," he said.

zoe.corbyn@tsleducation.com.

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