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CAUT Bulletin Archives

April 1997

Information Technology & the Future of the University

Robert Clift
Advances in information technology will profoundly reshape the Canadian university — but in what shape, exactly? Technological soothsayers predict not only the end of the library, but also the end of the university as we know it. Rather than surrender to technological determinism, however, almost 200 professors, librarians, administrators, researchers, publishers and government officials met in early March in Vancouver at the Scholarly Communication in the Next Millennium conference to consider technological, legal and financial dimensions of scholarly communication and to craft Canadian responses and strategies to meet the challenges.

One of those challenges is the escalating costs of journals, particularly those in the scientific, technological and medical fields. Many presenters cautioned that although the technology holds great promise, the estimated cost savings resulting from putting journals on the Internet — so-called "e-journals"- were only seven per cent to 20 per cent.

The costs of administration, peer review, editing, and layout are incurred whether a journal is paper-based or electronic-based. Besides, paper-based journals can't just be turned into e-journals overnight, and there are increased costs in providing both formats during the transition period. By conference's end, there was general agreement that universities and governments must accept responsibility for journal production both in electronic and hard-copy formats. There was increasing scepticism at the idea that e-publication will save anybody any money in the end.

Some presenters said the conception of a journal itself was dated, and will be replaced by new paradigms of scholarly communication as the technology develops. Others, however, reminded the audience there is a continuing need to subject research results to peer review, and to maintain an authoritative record of those results. The pressure to go electronic worried some participants who feared that peer evaluation would soon be forced onto an ultra-rapid schedule of receipt-and-review. The importance of careful peer review, coupled with great disparities in access to computing resources, suggests there is still life in traditional print journals.

The conference was not only about technology. Presenters also considered issues of copyright and ownership of scholarly resources. A recurring theme was the loss of control of authors’ publication rights as publishers seek to exploit new technology and republish or repackage scholarly articles for the new medium. Combined with the proposed weakening of "fair use" provisions in copyright legislation currently before the House of Commons, researchers could, unwittingly, lose access to their own work. This speculation seems extreme, but is it precisely these sorts of worries that led Rowland Lorimer, a communications professor at Simon Fraser University, to conceive of the conference. It was also Lorimer's goal that the conference not merely serve as a forum, but produce substantive policy recommendations — and that it did.

Although participants had differing views and interests, there was widespread agreement on several key issues. Peer review was viewed as an essential element of the policy framework, as was the development of advanced communications networks on Canadian campuses, and equitable distribution of computing resources. Most interesting was the unanimous opinion that the current "publish or perish" ethos underlying tenure and promotion decisions be replaced with a system favouring quality of publication over quantity.

In this last instance, conference participants recognized the important role the Association of Universities and Colleges of Canada and the Canadian Association of University Teachers have to play in reshaping the academic reward system.

As this conference demonstrated, the challenge to all of us in the academic enterprise, and particularly faculty and librarians, is to craft our own responses to the changing environment and not merely accept technological determinism as natural or inevitable.

Robert Clift is Executive Director of the Confederation of University Faculty Associations of British Columbia.

CAUT was represented at the conference by Ken Field, Chair of the Librarians Committee who gave a paper (see CAUT web site) and by the President Bill Bruneau. The conference web site can be checked out at