GREECE: Academics denied access to e-libraries

Greek academics were temporarily denied access to the world's electronic academic libraries and it took the resignation of a university rector and a strongly-worded statement by the Federation of University Teachers' Associations to avert the danger of a more permanent exclusion.

For the past two years, despite repeated reminders, the Greek authorities neglected to renew their subscriptions to the electronic academic libraries as a result of which the latter posted a temporary ban and threatened to make it permanent unless subscriptions worth more than EUR32m (US$44 million) were paid immediately.

Among these libraries are Oxford and Cambridge University Press, Elsevier (Science Direct), the Institute of Physics, the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers, Association of Computing Machinery, the American Institute of Physics, the American Psychological Society and many more.

These libraries currently hold thousands of manuscripts, books and specialised magazines and publications without which lecturers, researchers and students cannot possibly carry out their duties adequately.

Just over a decade ago, the subscriptions of the universities and the technological institutes to printed magazines increased enormously and their academic libraries had to make drastic cuts in an effort to reduce costs.

At the time the Greek Association of Academic Libraries, in order to solve the problem, signed a contract with a small number of publishers who were electronic providers of some 3,500 magazines where all the Greek institutions could have access.

In 2000, the total cost of subscriptions to all printed magazines was just over EUR10m and was covered by the budget of each and every institution separately. Large institutions had a large number of subscriptions and smaller ones had fewer. There was a waste of resources and the benefit was rather limited.

The Rectors Conference the same year decided to abolish the printed subscriptions and instead use the money to buy subscriptions to those publishers providing access to their electronic libraries.

The cost was assumed by the Education Ministry and the management by the Technological University on the principle of "everyone has access to everything", in other words even the smallest institution had access to the titles of all the contracted publishers.

A study carried out in 2007 revealed that universities and technological institutes had access to more than 11.500 magazines while the cost was 22.7% lower than in 2000, which meant the scheme was extremely cost-effective as well as providing a more useful and effective service to the institutions which only have to bear the cost of their own specialised needs, if any.

Unfortunately, as a result of some administrative oversight, the subscriptions for 2009 and 2010 were not paid. The publishers warned that unless the various contracts were renewed and payment made by the end of February they would have no alternative but to discontinue the service.

Simultaneously, the education and finance ministries were alerted by the Federation of University Teachers' Associations and by the Association of Greek Academic Libraries to the possibility that Greek academics might be prevented from using the services of the academic libraries as a result of the mounting debt.

Both ministries dragged their feet and when the temporary ban was announced and the Greek academics found themselves prevented from accessing the libraries, the Rector of the Aegean University, Andreas Troumbis, immediately tendered his resignation in protest.

The Federation of University Teachers' Associations called on the finance and education ministers to take immediate steps to resolve the matter.

The federation said in a statement it had repeatedly warned the previous and current leadership of the ministries that a ban could be imposed but its warnings had not been heeded. It called on the Finance Secretary to release the necessary credit for payment of subscriptions to eliminate the difficulties academics and researchers were facing in the exercise of their duties.

"We are calling on the state to approach the problem with gravity and responsibility because without the modern academic sources it is not possible to carry out research and the Greek university will return to the Dark Ages," the statement said.

The appropriate services of the ministries were then mobilised and it is understood the matter has now been resolved. It has not been possible to communicate directly with the Rector of the Aegean University to ascertain whether he would insist on his resignation or withdraw it.

His office said he would discuss the matter with his colleagues at the next university senate committee at the end of the month, where a final decision will be taken.

After that we can only hope that 'all's well that ends well'.