All posts by The Informed Team

The cost of subscription publishing

The following article was submitted by Stuart Lawson.

The high cost of subscription journals has been discussed endlessly among librarians and those advocating for open access. While it is common knowledge that the prices paid by libraries are higher than most can really afford, there is still surprisingly little data in the public domain about what the exact costs are. Partly this is just down to the fact that libraries haven’t traditionally published detailed breakdowns of their acquisitions expenditure, so there is no cultural norm of doing so.

Partly it is due to the contracts that libraries sign with publishers to gain access to their journals. Some of these contracts contain non-disclosure agreements which prevent librarians from publicly disclosing the prices or pricing calculations. However, while this practice does exist, it is less widespread than is sometimes assumed. In the UK the only publisher whose contract includes a non-disclosure agreement which it claims prevents signatories from releasing some data even when subject to freedom of information (FOI) requests is Elsevier. The legal position of Elsevier’s non-disclosure clause has not been tested in court and if there are any brave librarians out there who wish to pursue that route, it could be worth getting a legal opinion about whether it can be done.

Subscription costs for all other publishers can be gained by any member of the public by sending FOI requests to UK universities, either as an individual or through the website So that’s what we’ve done. The subscription costs paid by around 100 institutions to six major publishers are now openly available on figshare. We will be sending carefully-worded FOI requests separately for Elsevier data to obtain as much as is legally possible at the moment.

Transparency in subscription data is particularly important right now because we are seeing increased transparency in the price of APCs, and if this is seen without the context of the costs of subscriptions it could be used to claim that open access is needlessly expensive (thanks to Ernesto Priego for pointing this out).

Huge thanks to Ben Meghreblian for doing most of the manual labour or sending out all the FOI requests and collating the responses. Not every UK higher education institution is included in this dataset, particularly some of those institutions which have merged in the last few years, but the majority are. The notable exception is the majority of the research-intensive Russell Group universities, which were excluded because I know that someone else sent similar requests earlier this year but have not published the results yet. Even though those Russell Group universities would tend to have much higher subscription expenditure, I think it is important to see how bearing the burden of the costs of academic publishing is not limited to the more wealthy institutions.

A few caveats about the data so far:

  • The requests asked for data in calendar years, and some institutions responded with data in academic financial years. In those cases the data has been put in the column for the latter year. For example, if a figure is given for 2012/13, it is placed in the 2013 column. The money may actually have been transferred during 2012, but it will be for subscriptions for 2013.
  • Some institutions have not included expenditure through subscription agents or other intermediaries, including big deals. Others have included these costs. This makes directly comparing institutions’ expenditure more tricky.
    We are still waiting for responses from some institutions. These figures will be added to the spreadsheet as they become available.

For further details of individual requests please follow the links given in the tabs in the spreadsheet.

UPDATE: Further data has been added to the dataset, which now includes expenditure on  Elsevier journals for some universities.

Voluntarily confused

Jennie Findlay and Lorna Robertson are both experienced information professionals, working in the legal sector, and have been active members of CILIP for a substantial period of time.


As background to this post we are both Chartered and revalidated members of CILIP, active mentors and one of us volunteered with the Career Development Group for 10 years.

One of us wrote a blog post on the problems they had encountered with using the CILIP Virtual Learning Environment in December 2013. In February 2014, they wrote another post about the issues they felt are caused by a professional qualification system being run almost entirely by volunteers. In March, we both attended an “exchange of experience” session, discussing the VLE and the mentoring system with other mentors. Following on from that event, we have continued to have worries about how the new Body of Professional Knowledge systems are being run and supported, and we are not alone. Our concerns are shared by other information professionals, and this concern has motivated us to co-write this post.


Current Problems

Volunteer Sign
Volunteer sign.
(Image c/o Jacob Moyer on Flickr.)

A core purpose of a professional body is enabling its members to act as competent and ethical professionals, and to do this it means that the body should be providing professional training to those members to fulfil those needs. However, at present most training provided by CILIP is carried out by volunteers in the branches and groups.It may be that CILIP members are often not aware that the people running training events in their local areas are not actually paid CILIP staff, but volunteers, usually fitting in these commitments around their own jobs. The expectations of attendees are that communications relating to events will be prioritised, and our experience is that they can often become annoyed when they do not get what they perceive to be an efficient or rapid response. There can also be issues when the training is being provided by inexperienced staff: the information being given can be inaccurate, and confusing. We ourselves have experienced this recently, when attending a demonstration of the VLE, given by volunteers. The information given at this event was inaccurate, or conflicted with the information given in the formal training provided directly by CILIP via a WebEx demonstration.

Participation in the Certification/Chartership/Revalidation/Fellowship system is currently voluntary. If and when involvement becomes obligatory (as is proposed), this will be an even greater burden on the current mentors, trainers, support officers and assessors. Can a system such as this, which will be a core component of the benefit of CILIP membership, be implemented effectively by volunteers when every member is expected to participate in it?

We were informed during the recent event that we attended that CILIP is trying to sell the PKSB “package” to other professional bodies. This in itself is not an issue: it is obviously going to be a priority of CILIP to get the maximum value for the members from its assets. However, it would be interesting to know whether they are selling the PKSB system as one which will need salaried staff to run, or whether they are promoting it as a volunteer based system?

Volunteers are not compensated or recognised for their contributions to the running of their professional body. There are many people involved in the activities that CILIP provide: people running social events, training events, providing mentoring support, and assessing professional qualification submissions. We were quoted a figure of 650 people who were currently registered as mentors – that is a LOT of people supporting the mentoring system alone. It seems unfair that those people are having to pay one of the highest membership fees in the information professional field, in order to give their time and skills to run core CILIP services and member benefits.

There is currently also a worryingly high level of confusion in communications coming from CILIP. It can be hard to differentiate between emails from groups, branches and CILIP, and the different areas don’t always give the same advice. Information which comes from volunteers in the groups can be inconsistent, for example information on what areas in the VLE mentors should be able to access, from MSOs. Or are just wrong – one author recently got an email telling them to select a new group as the Career Development Group no longer exists but they had already changed groups in December so they were no longer in the CDG. This confusion and inconsistency in the provision of basic information undermines members confidence in their professional body.


Other Professional Bodies

So, are the professional qualifications schemes of other professional bodies run by volunteers too? We had a quick (non-comprehensive) look to see who else expects their members to volunteer to provide CPD opportunities or run core events for other members.

  • The Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has an Assessment of Professional Competence (APC) system. The APC appears to be a work based, long-term qualification similar to an apprenticeship, which expects an applicant’s line manager to oversee the process. They have an event management team to run training. There appear to be no volunteers involved in events.
  • The Institute of Chartered Accountants has a CA qualification system. Similar to RICS, it’s a modern type of apprenticeship, with skills being developed and assessed within a role. There is a virtual mentoring system being introduced, but with no element of professional assessment. It appears that they have a “Member Engagement” team.
  • The Royal Pharmaceutical Society appears to have a mentoring scheme, which is undergoing redevelopment but it doesn’t look like there’s currently any element of professional assessment within it. It appears that they have an Events team.

It’s quite hard to compare systems, as CILIP needs to have a wide-ranging professional qualification system in order to encompass the wide variety of membership sectors, rather than the very specific and often intensive employment-based qualifications system some other bodies run. Also, most professional bodies tend to protect information by placing it within member-only areas, so some materials such as the specific details of training provision by the body are inaccessible to non-members.However, it appears from looking at CILIP’s website in a comparable way, that a significant proportion of events and professional visits/CPD are currently being provided by volunteers. In May, there are 3 official CILIP events, and 13 branch/group events (, and in June, there are 2 CILIP events, and 14 branch/group events. Knowing from personal experience that group events are run by volunteers and branch events may have support from local volunteers, this means that volunteers are providing five to six times the number of professional events that CILIP as a body provides. It also appears that the professional training that CILIP provides beyond this is organised by CILIP staff, although it is unclear if this is at an additional cost to recipients. In terms of the mentoring system, the website shows that the Professional Registration system requires the involvement of mentors/Candidate Support Officers, but does not explicitly state that those individuals are volunteers.



There needs to be greater clarity and publicity from CILIP around the fact that most of its member benefits are actually being provided by volunteers, and as such, the expectations of participants in such events must be lowered. This includes in respect of the time the organisers have available to respond to them, and the speed at which any queries can be dealt with.

Event organisation and management should rely less heavily on the work of volunteers. For a professional body to expect people to pay membership fees, and then to have events which should be a core membership benefit being run by people who have effectively paid for the privilege of providing a service to their professional body, is not acceptable.

If CILIP is going to introduce a compulsory element to the professional qualifications system, they need to assess whether continuing to run it through the efforts of volunteers is still appropriate, or whether they need to recruit for a level of staffing which will make it possible to support the system full time. If providing staffing to run the system is unachievable, they need to take a closer look at the role of volunteers within the system, and how to maintain their engagement and involvement with it.

Many volunteers give up huge amounts of their own free time to CILIP to provide services to members (10 days+ of annual leave per year for a couple of years for one of the authors) but this is unsustainable for any length of time, especially without “reward” or thanks of some sort. A system of reducing the steep membership fees in relation to the time spent working for CILIP should be achievable, with a bit of effort, and would act as a reward for the voluntary contribution of time and energy of the member. Activities which should trigger a reduction could be: being a mentor; being on a committee/board (although there is difficulty involved with assessing the level of activity there – some people join committees but don’t actually contribute); being an assessor; being a Mentor Support Officer etc. Having a system to enable members to be recognised and rewarded for the time and effort they give to CILIP would encourage these volunteers to retain their enthusiasm to support the system, particularly when revalidation becomes obligatory in the near future. Otherwise, as the demands on volunteers increase, the number of those willing to participate in supporting the system may well drop.


The public position of CILIP on volunteers

Another element of CILIP’s reliance on volunteers to run its services is its effect on the public and political view of the body. CILIP is, as of June 2012, officially on record as being opposed to the use of volunteers to deliver core services in libraries: “We do not believe that volunteers should undertake core service delivery”. However, it could be argued that by using volunteers itself to deliver its own core services to paying members, it is undermining its own stated position on the role of volunteers in core service provision. If our professional body is content to deliver its main services by using volunteers, what authority has it to say that others shouldn’t use volunteers too.


Declaration on open access for LIS authors

The idea for the Declaration on open access for LIS authors originally came from reading the article Librarian, Heal Thyself: A Scholarly Communication Analysis of LIS Journals (23 April) by Micah Vandegrift and Chealsye Bowley. The article raised the fact that LIS authors need to do more to support open access. There have been numerous declarations and petitions on open access which have done much to help define what it is and what steps people can take to make it a reality. A similar declaration specifically for academics and practitioners in the library and information professions will help to demonstrate our commitment to the principles of open access.

Open access is the practice of making academic research freely available for anyone to read and re-use. It means that rather than the results of research, such as journal articles, being locked away behind a paywall and only accessible to those who can afford it, anyone with access to the internet has the same opportunity to make use of the work. Open access does not solve all of the problems regarding information inequality but it is an important step towards doing so. It is a necessary but not sufficient condition for creating a more egalitarian and participatory academic culture, and it allows the fruits of publicly-funded research to be made available to the public.

In order to create the text of the declaration in support of these ideals, a Google doc was created which was open to anyone to contribute to. Over the next few weeks a number of people did just that, helping to transform the original idea into something more complete, coherent, and better written. This collaborative writing process was a working example of what can happen when you open up your ideas to the world and allow a conversation to develop around them.

Some interesting discussions arose in the comments, particularly around the issue of how strong to make the statement. A more hardline approach may be closer to the spirit which inspired it, but on the other hand a more cautious statement might have wider acceptance and attract more signatures. The final text hopefully found a good balance between these views, although this does leave the action points a bit more open to interpretation.

The second wave of enthusiasm for the declaration arose out of Radical Librarians Collective event in London on 10 May. A number of people pledged their support for the idea, some important amendments were made to the text, and Informed kindly agreed to host the declaration.

So now the final text of the Declaration on open access for LIS authors has been published and is open for signatures. If you are a librarian, student, LIS academic, or otherwise involved in research in this area, and you agree with the principles embodied in the declaration, then please add your name to make your voice heard.

The final text of the Declaration on open access for LIS authors was drafted by Stuart Lawson, Micah Vandegrift, Edgar Crook, and Charles Oppenheim; it incorporated recommended changes from Penny Andrews, Lauren Collister, and Kevin Sanders. Thanks to everyone involved (and any anonymous contributors) for their comments, amendments, drafting, and editing.

This post was partly self-plagiarised from my original CC-BY blog post about the idea.

By Stuart Lawson

Should access to the internet be a fundamental right…for everyone?

(Image c/o gianni on Flickr)

Overcoming the divide between the richest and the poorest in society has always been a significant challenge. The wealthiest in society have always been in a position to afford the services required to improve their quality of life: better healthcare, better education etc etc. In the twentieth century, particularly post-1945, there were renewed efforts to address this disparity through the introduction of the National Health Service, a functioning welfare system and free secondary education for all pupils.

Between 1910-1979, the divide between the wealthiest and the poorest in the UK dropped significantly, particularly after 1936. Since that period, however, the trend has been in the opposite direction as the wealthiest take a larger share of income than at any point since 1940. This widening of the divide between the richest and the poorest is, in part, a symptom of the watering down of the post-1945 social contract, characterised by a move away from the primacy of society towards the primacy of the individual. Technological advances have, however, provided an opportunity to close this gap once more.

However, as yet, this potential has yet to be realised, not least due to the expense of the technology and the skills required to exploit it. Indeed, whilst the impact of easier access by the public to relevant information has been felt to a degree, the continued existence of a digital divide hampers progress towards the more equitable society the technology can help to deliver.

At present, there are around 7 million people in the UK who have never accessed the internet (the number without access is obviously higher). The divide presents a number of difficulties for those without access to the internet. For example, it can hamper their child’s performance at school. It can put them at a disadvantage when it comes to their health and, as preventative care pushes up the agenda, the implications for the unconnected are stark. It can affect them economically, both in terms of the savings they would make and as a consequence of welfare reforms by the UK coalition in pushing social security online. Closing this divide can, therefore, improve life chances and help to shrink the gap between the richest and the poorest (it obviously won’t eliminate the gap on its own, that would require more wide-ranging action).

As government services have shifted online, the commercial potential for ever faster broadband has begun to be realised and the economic benefits of getting everyone online are talked up, there has been an awareness of the importance of addressing the divide between those connected to the internet and those that are not. However, one group is often excluded when it comes to identifying and supporting the so-called ‘information poor’ – prisoners.

Towards the end of last year, the Prison Reform Trust and Prisoners’ Education Trust released a report on computer and internet access in prisons. Through the Gateway: How Computers Can Transform Rehabilitation [PDF 1.46MB] explores the use of information and communication technology (ICT) in prisons and its potential impact on rehabilitation. Based on a survey of prisons sent to all prison governors and directors in England and Wales supported by the National Offender Management Service (NOMS), a focus group of prisoners’ families, prison visits and expert roundtables, the report argues that drastic change is needed and access to ICT should be reconsidered.

(Image c/o Marc Soller via Flickr.)

Now, some might argue that if you are in prison you lose your liberty and therefore any right to access services such as the internet. However, whether we like it or not, many prisoners are only removed from society on a temporary basis, they will have to be reintegrated at some point. As such, we need to consider their return to society, their re-integration and, of course, provide the necessary support to help ensure that they do not re-offend. As the Prison Trust underline in their coverage of the report on their website, nearly half of all prisoners (47%) are reconvicted within a year of their release. Furthermore, in 2011-12, “just 27% of prisoners entered employment on release from prison”. The challenge for us as a society is to reduce the re-offending rate and ensure that prisoners are not pushed to the edges of society once they have finished serving their sentence.

Changes to the welfare system are in danger of making integration increasingly difficult for those released from prison. With the government pushing job seekers online to find work or suffer associated penalties, it is more crucial than ever that prisoners are not left behind and therefore placed at a serious disadvantage when it comes to finding work. The scale of the problem is reinforced in the report:

47% of prisoners say they have no qualifications. This compares to 15% of the working age general population in the UK.

21% of prisoners reported needing help with reading and writing or ability with numbers.

With such a lack of skills, it is clear that significant support is needed in getting prisoners online, preparing them for work outside of prison and ensuring they are not left behind or penalised by the government’s new social security regime. When almost a half of prisoners have no qualifications whatsoever and 1 in 5 need help with reading and writing, there are clearly significant barriers ahead in terms of their re-integration into society. As two prisoners noted in the report:

“Here’s why you need internet for resettlement: to keep up with changes outside – job criteria can change while you’re inside; checking on housing by particular postcodes – co-ordinated with your conditions of release.”

“It’s a bit of a risk – being linked into the internet – but the bigger risk is sending people out who are not able to cope and who cannot find gainful employment.”

The provision of internet access to prisoners can not only help develop their skills and ensure they are not left behind after they have served their sentence, it can also help to further their education. The growth of Massive Open Online Learning Courses (MOOCs) provides the opportunity for opening up education for all free of charge (provided they are online of course). Why should those with the skills to utilise the internet be prevented from furthering their education and helping to increase their chances of employment after their release? If we are to be serious about reducing re-offending rates, then shouldn’t we be looking at all the options and see an internet connection not as a luxury, but an important tool in helping to ensure prisoners can be re-integrated after serving their time?

Prison libraries could play a key role in ensuring access is provided and the technical skills of prisoners are developed. However, they are hampered by a number of restrictions placed upon them. Librarians working in prisons are severely restricted as a result of their equipment being connected to a tightly controlled prison network. Many sites are blocked, including blogs, social media and sometimes government websites. Although such restrictions are in place, prisoners are still not permitted to use the library computer because it is connected to the internet. Instead, prisoners are only provided access to standalone computers that are not connected to the internet and only permit the user to play games or write legal letters. That is, of course, if their prison is lucky to have any computers at all.

Whilst there may be legitimate concerns about the kind of material certain prisoners may attempt to access, such restrictions are not helpful in trying to ensure their reintegration into society when their sentence is served. The opportunities available online to learn new skills, not to mention the opportunity to learn basic ICT skills with the help of a trained prison librarian, can play a significant role in reducing the re-offending rate and provide former prisoners with the opportunity to make a more positive contribution to society. As Nick Hardwick, HM Chief Inspector of Prisons, notes in the report’s foreword:

“We can’t go on with prisons in a pre-internet dark age: inefficient, wasteful and leaving prisoners woefully unprepared for the real world they will face on release. I have not met one prison professional who does not think drastic change is needed.”

If we want to reduce reoffending and ensure a more equitable society, then we need to address the digital divide that exists not only across our communities, but between our communities and those that have been excluded from them. It will prove controversial with many, but as the world rapidly changes around us, we need to ensure that those excluded can be reintegrated into a world that can be very different from the one they were excluded from.

Happy new year

2013 saw the launch of this site, with the concept of having a neutral space that anyone could use to share their thoughts and spark discussions on issues pertinent to our profession, but with a wider societal impact as well.

We would like to take the opportuntiy to thank a whole bunch of people. Firstly we would like to thank those who helped us to bounce around the initial idea, told us whether or not it was something that was wanted/needed, contributed ideas and voted on the name. Secondly we would like to thank our team of moderators, who were all involved in those initial stages but have continued to voluntarily contribute as moderators; this is a vital role and one that our small team of admins would not be able to do with the care, attention and rapid turnaround that our amazing moderators do! Which brings us on nicely to thanking the authors who have submitted posts to the site, we are grateful to you for choosing our site as your platform and appreciate the hard work put in to each post. Finally we would like to thank everyone who has read, shared and commented on Informed posts, we have achieved good hit rates but more importantly have seen some really interesting discussions emerge – which was exactly what this whole project was about.

So thank you everyone for your help 2013 and we look forward to 2014!

A response to ‘Web filtering and the dangerous impact on users’

This blog post was written in response to a previous Informed post on ‘Web filtering and the dangerous impact on users‘.

The article on web filtering deals with two considerable issues. That of filtering within an organisational context, and that of the state imposing such filtering on all users. As to the government proposals, there can be little argument there, state imposed filtering is indefensible – it should be down to the administrators of each network (including home networks) as to how they implement filtering, if at all. But while it’s perfectly valid to highlight the problems encountered by users when browsing on filtered networks, this doesn’t mean that such systems aren’t necessary.

The reason given in the article that ‘many schools and universities will already have similar filters put in place to “protect” their students’, is not quite telling the full story as to why filtering is in place; one reason for having some kind of filtering is to block threats on the internal network. But what are these threats to the network that need additional security measures, and are they really so serious as to choose a universally unpopular solution? Well, to name a few: worms, trojans and spyware are not particularly rare online. These all tend to come under the general term ‘malware’, more info on which can be found easily (perhaps unless you’re on a filtered network) e.g.

There are other ways of protecting a network from these risks. Firewalls, anti-virus, pop-up blockers, and more. But it is rare that an organisation will ask themselves which SINGLE one of these they should use; they will ask themselves which vendor they should use for EACH of them. A council/library/university network will have all these things installed; far more security than the majority of people have in their home environment. At home people tend to believe they rely on Internet access, but a few days (or even weeks) without the web or your computer doesn’t necessarily mean a disaster. An organisation without computer systems for a few days would often mean no work done on those days. I’ve been at work in a public sector organisation where the place effectively shut down while a suspected online security breach was being investigated. Internet connectivity turned off, all systems inaccessible (social care systems etc.) Luckily, in that case it turned out to be a false alarm, but if malware had been found then the consequences would have been far worse. It’s not just loss of productivity, it’s the potential loss of security to the sensitive data (in Public Sector organisations that can mean a lot of personal data) held on the network, and the systems used within that network.

One response to this is ‘well, I get on fine at home without filtering and can be sensible online, why should work consider I need filtered access?’ The evidence is unfortunately that as a society we don’t seem to get on fine at home. There are many varying estimates of the number of computers infected with malware (and we need to be cautious in order to make allowance for bias in reports from internet security companies), but as an example take the following news story from the BBC about the DNSChanger virus, estimated to have affected 4 million users:

Far from the idea that these are ‘blocks imposed without enough thought about how they will impact on users’, it is likely that the blocks are more often dismissed by users without enough thought as to why they are put in place.

Take short URLs. To a user, the idea of blocking short URLs is nothing other than unnecessary and thoughtless censorship. However, short URLs have long been considered an online security risk, the following post gives a good indication of why using them in emails will be very likely to get your emails relegated to spam boxes.

Also, consider consistency, users will expect sites to always either be blocked or not blocked, not to change daily. The previous article mentioned that the ‘blocks imposed are also highly inconsistent, with page categorisations changing by the day.’ The filters are generally very consistent, because they are relatively simple. The lack of consistency is from the websites, not the filter, but very little can be done about that. Even a perfect filtering system would return varying results each day as the pages it was assessing changed daily. And this is certainly more preferable than maintaining any kind of set categorisation for each site. To take an extreme example, a site can be safe one day, and hacked the next day into something not safe. But that information is never given to users, the ever changing categorisations are just perceived as a faulty system.

The question was also raised of confidence being dented for those with limited computing skills who are confronted with block screens. However I would venture that this is going to be less than the dented confidence caused by phishing attacks (, such as those to steal personal and bank details. These attacks target inexperienced Internet users who aren’t confident online, and don’t necessarily imagine that a page that looks like their bank may not be. Again, the answer seems to be to provide more information when blocking sites; a mysterious block message is certainly alienating, though potentially better than exposing the users to the threat. But those block messages are fully customisable, why not a well written justification as to why the organisation chooses to block that classification of site?

Organisations could certainly do a better job of explaining the decisions they make. Perhaps more information would go some way to tackling the idea that ‘in reality the filters are not effectively protecting anyone’. Instead of being thought of as just a way to get round an annoying filtering system, users could be using it through choice, both at home and at work. It’s an excellent tool to ensure you’re not taken in by a short URL which turns out to be something you weren’t suspecting.

Ultimately, until those complaining about Internet filtering are able to put forward alternative security assessments and plans for those organisations, then filtering will still be chosen by default as the best option. That seems overly dismissive of users in many ways, the fact that very few people are qualified to produce a network security risk analysis doesn’t mean that we’re not entitled to complain, or to have a reasonably informed opinion, and be concerned over censorship. But it does mean that we need to appreciate that only highlighting the problems is no more effective than complaining about the weather. So what can actually be done about it? Here are a few possibilities:

  • Turn off all web filtering apart from that which is classified as a security riskOf course I’ve focussed only on security filtering, such as sites classified as linking to malware. You may think, ‘well fair enough, block all those things, but the point was about actually useful sites that we need to go on’, and that’s fair enough. But with this option you will still be left with the filtering software turned on, and it will still occasionally get things wrong, and a cause of irritation and loss of productivity will continue. Organisations can clearly do better to alleviate this though by involving users in the decisions, and providing their own arguments.
  • Separate networksWhen you add Internet access to a private network you are effectively merging that network onto the Internet, and then desperately trying to bolt in security to ensure that your network remains private. An alternative is not to connect the network to the Internet. That doesn’t mean not allowing users online, but there are alternatives – such as using a separate network dedicated to online access, while keeping the actual network locked down. Users would probably have to say goodbye to anything like downloading a file onto their PC though, and it may make certain tasks far less practical.
  • Better filtering softwareThis is the ideal, but very difficult. There are better methods of filtering than current providers often use, but the issue is always what can be done quickly in the time available. Intelligent analysis of a web page is not going to be easy to do while the user is waiting for the page to load. Current filters are simplistic but fast.

It’s worth remembering that for every anecdote about filtering mistakes, such as the example where the British Library banned Hamlet (, network administrators also have a number of equally worrying stories: the times users have made complaints that they weren’t allowed to download a file that turned out to be a virus, or the times that users have requested access to sites that have been hacked and marked as a security risk. It may be that while working to provide more information about why some filtering is in place, and removing unnecessary filtering options, we can then move towards a situation where the filters provide a real and easily identifiable service to the user, not a hindrance.

By Public Sector Systems

Information literacy issues in the real world

You probably don’t think that it’s too hard to find good, reliable sources for information online. You may well think that, because you’ve developed excellent information seeking and verifying skills yourself. You’ve learned how to assess all sorts of online resources, check them for accuracy and bias, and decide for yourself whether they are trustworthy. This is an important skill in the modern environment, and is known to information professionals as “information literacy”. Throughout the education sector and the public library sector, information professionals are working to impart these skills to both children and adults, to enable those individuals to make good decisions on the accuracy and reliability of the information they access online. Being equipped with good information literacy skills means you can make informed and reasoned judgements on information you encounter.

The Australian Environment Minister, Greg Hunt, unfortunately appears not to have developed these skills regarding assessing the veracity of resources found online. Despite the many problematic issues associated with some of the information available on the site, he has recently declared that when checking whether there was a link between climate change and bushfires in Australia, he “looked up what Wikipedia says”. Now, on the face of it, this is funny – a government minister has relied on a site that’s notorious for its capacity to be maliciously or entertainingly edited to give misinformation for his facts, and now he looks slightly foolish!

However, what is of more concern is the extent to which Mr Hunt appears to be unaware of the fact that Wikipedia is not regarded as an authoritative source for information, particularly in regards to contentious or political issues. As climate change is a highly politicised topic, the most reasonable approach to understanding whether there is a link between climate change and bushfires would be to check for research on the topic in scientific publications. These journal articles would have been peer reviewed and the science rigorously checked, meaning that the conclusions drawn within them would have a strong basis in verifiable facts. Somehow, Mr Hunt has managed to avoid all the times throughout his school and work career when information professionals attempted to teach him information literacy skills, and has made a poor choice when selecting a source to support his viewpoint. Luckily, this sort of cherry-picking of unreliable information is obvious, due to the fact that he cited Wikipedia as his source, and this undermines the strength of his argument. But this use of Wikipedia as a source for information hints at a concerning underlying issue – are the people in power actually equipped to assess the information they’re being given? They are bound to be bombarded with a large volume of information on all sorts of topics: do they have access to information professionals who can either help them to learn how to effectively assess the veracity of sources, or who can do this checking for them?

It appears not: this letter from the Australian Library and Information Association was issued in response to Greg Hunt’s statement. It shows that staffing cuts in government and other libraries mean that ministers do not have the level of access to skilled information professionals that they should. This means that those ministers are now having to rely on their own information assessment skills, and in this particular case, those skills have fallen far short of those which the public could reasonably expect a government representative to have. Without those skills, it appears that government ministers are liable to making mistakes in important policy areas, by potentially basing their decisions on unreliable sources. It is important that the people in these powerful positions are equipped with the skills which will to enable them to deal appropriately with the information they encounter, and make good, well informed decisions. Information literacy is not an optional skill, it’s an essential requirement in order to be able to work effectively, and one which even government ministers must develop if they want their views on topics to be respected, rather than be laughed at!

By Jennie Findlay