Some Thoughts on Brexit

International issues

By: Ken Sawdon

The United Kingdom has been central in one of the stories that was chosen to dominate the news. No, I’m not going to be writing about the British Library’s termination of its international non-commercial document delivery service today, but the United Kingdom referendum to leave the European Union, “Brexit.”

The future is uncertain, and all anyone has at the moment is educated speculation. But, most people seem pessimistic, and predict that leaving the UK will affect every social and economic standard. To that end, I want to outline just some of the predicted changes that are important to intellectual freedom in the UK, and the rest of the world.

Leigh Watson Healy, of Outsell, has a good overview for what the exit means generally and what the information industry (not specifically libraries) can expect. Healy points out that about one-third of research and development funding in the UK was provided by European research funds. With European funds withdrawn back to the union countries, UK research will be overshadowed by continental Europe. While research struggles so, too, will libraries as “future increases [to budgets] are now almost assuredly gone.” Simultaneously, publishers and other content licensers will be scrambling to figure out the new complexities in licensing involved after the UK disconnects. I don’t expect many people would shed a tear for big publishers, but it may give them ammunition to increase their costs. Finally, Healy predicts that new movement restrictions will have dire consequences for both students/universities and employees/employers. New costs and restrictions will limit recruitment options, preventing the most talented or appropriate people from placement. She predicts this will result in “lower margins and higher prices driving higher wages in a spiral effect.”

Richard Poynder has taken a look at the possible future of academia and Open Access post-Brexit, and interviewed Stephen Curry, an OA ally and professor at Imperial College London. Poynder first points to some of the huge losses to education and research:

Nature reports that UK universities currently get around 16% of their research funding from the EU, and that the UK currently hosts more EU-funded holders of ERC grants than any other member state. Elsewhere, Digital Science has estimated that the UK could lose £1 billion in science funding if the UK government does not make up the shortfall in EU-linked research funds. — Richard Poynder

The UK government would have the funds to make up for the EU loss, but whether the government would decide to do this remains to be seen. If it seems doubtful that the UK will make up for these losses, it definitely seems unlikely that there would be an expansion to fund education and research. This means that services would continue with the current status quo instead of evolving. Poynder points out that the EU goal of publishing all scientific papers OA by default 2020, which was already a lofty goal, is now much less achievable. Curry suggested that, “the whole Brexit process could well be a huge distraction for the rest of the EU so perhaps the 2020 deadline…might slip,” and that while the UK has been an influential voice for gold OA there are other member nations that value OA. He also suggested that this is an excellent opportunity for scholarly publishers to demonstrate themselves as “partners” with the research community

Finally, the UK will not be obligated to uphold any of the policies that the European Union created, adopted, and enforced (not that the EU policies are always without criticism). Recently the Advocate General of the Court of Justice of the EU gave an official position that ebook lending is comparable to the lending of physical books. Larger in the news was the EU’s political (not legal) push to make “open access to scientific publications as the option by default by 2020,” already mentioned. With these guiding policies and laws no longer valid, the UK will need to rewrite all of these policies–assuming they reimplemented them at all. Some of these policies and laws could be part of the negotiations between the UK and EU for the next two years.

The European Bureau of Library, Information and Documentation Associations has already reached out to the libraries of the UK, suggesting organizations and institutions join with them and other EU associations. The problem with this is that EBLIDA, IFLA, and other associations are toothless. While many EU policies were merely suggestions, the EU did have the ability to sanction, punish, and encourage its member nations. Additionally, groups like EBLIDA and IFLA will now have to focus on advocating to both EU and UK policymakers separately.

In 2014 the UK paid 11.3416 billion into the EU (page 40), and received a total of 6.984 billion in funding.


Ken Sawdon is a Footage Curation and Metadata Specialist at Dissolve Ltd., a startup stock footage and photo company. He is a recent MLIS graduate from the University of Alberta, where his activities included co-chair of the Forum for Information Professionals student conference and community activist and blogger for the Future Librarians for Intellectual Freedom. He has been a volunteer librarian for the Aero Space Museum of Calgary as well as a Collections Assistant at Fort Calgary. He loves wading through policy and legislation, especially intellectual property issues and professional association rhetoric. You can find and connect with him at @kainous on Twitter.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.