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Academic libraries repatriate research

U.S. Patriot Act prompts libraries to switch to Canadian servers for Refworks data management

by Devin Crawley

A number of Canadian academic libraries that licence a popular U.S.-based tool for managing research online have moved their accounts to a Canadian server because of concerns that student and faculty members' research could be investigated under the U.S. Patriot Act if their data remain stored south of the border.

Passed shortly after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the Patriot Act authorizes the FBI to conduct wide sweeps for potential evidence of terrorism and places a gag order on those instructed to turn over information. And while information on the Internet moves freely among national borders, it is a commonly accepted legal principle that such information is subject to the laws of the country in which it is stored.

A consortium of academic libraries in the Atlantic provinces that have site licences to RefWorks, an online tool for storing citation lists and bibliographies, recently switched from a RefWorks database in the U.S. to one installed at the University of Toronto. Similar groups of libraries in Quebec and Western Canada (including a group in the Prairie provinces and British Columbia) have already moved or are planning to move to the U of T database.

Lynn Copeland, university librarian at Simon Fraser University, says that in the meantime, SFU's privacy coordinator advised placing a disclaimer on the library's website, noting that SFU's RefWorks users store their data on a U.S. server. The University of British Columbia library website includes a similar message on its RefWorks page.

U of T began offering access to RefWorks from U.S. servers in 2003 as part of Scholars' Portal, a province-wide collection of online research tools managed by the Ontario Consortium of University Libraries. Peter Clinton, U of T's director of IT services, says the university arranged to install the RefWorks database on its own servers two years ago to interact more efficiently with the electronic journals and indexes already hosted on site. The transfer brought no objection from RefWorks, he adds, because the university has had "a long-term relationship" with RefWorks' parent company, Cambridge Information Group.

In the past year, U of T has been upgrading its hardware to take on additional subscriptions from other universities. Mr. Clinton says he has reserved judgment about any potential judicial advantage to hosting in Canada versus the U.S. "Our response has been we can't comment on the legalities of it."

U of T has struck deals with libraries to host RefWorks for a fee, in addition to the RefWorks licence to support additional hardware to handle the greater load. Richard Ellis, university librarian at Memorial University, says the fee is "very small" and outweighed by the benefit of greater privacy for researchers. Memorial's chief librarian acknowledges that "the Patriot Act was a contributor to [the] decision" to host RefWorks in Ontario.

Concerns about the potential for secret surveillance are not limited to RefWorks, but extend to other online database services based in the United States. Ryerson University's student newspaper recently discussed similar concerns about Turnitin.com, a U.S. database used by some Canadian universities to compare students' papers to a large repository of research to search for signs of plagiarism.

Debra Dawson, director of the teaching support centre at the University of Western Ontario, an early adopter of Turnitin, downplays the risk of FBI snooping into what is mainly a database of undergraduate research: "There would be very little reason for anyone to access first-year papers through the Patriot Act."

Tim Mark, executive director of the Canadian Association of Research Libraries, says many of CARL's members feel that moving the RefWorks licences northward is "the prudent thing to do." He adds that CARL's next step will be lobbying to prevent similar surveillance capabilities from being passed in Canada. Before it died on the order paper after the last federal election, Bill C-74, the so-called "lawful access" bill, proposed wider surveillance powers over the Internet, although postsecondary educational institutions and libraries were exempt from most of its provisions. Noting that the current federal government has indicated plans to pass similar legislation, Mr. Mark says CARL will be watching closely to ensure that exemptions for libraries are preserved.

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