An explosive growth in student numbers and a limited supply of reference books and journals is being blamed for an epidemic of page-slashing that has broken out in the hallowed halls of academia.
Few universities keep accurate records of how many books and journals are being disfigured by over-zealous students keen to find - and keep - their reference material. But academics are convinced the trend has reached epidemic proportions.
Tim Birkhead, a biology professor at the University of Sheffield, has gone public about this breach of the last great taboo in academic life - book mutilation. ''Five years ago you might occasionally find a journal from which an article had been neatly excised with a razor blade, but it was unusual,'' he writes in this week's New Scientist. ''Nowadays this practice has reached epidemic proportions.
"When I asked my 85 final-year students whether they had come across any journals that had been abused in this way, they all said they had.''
Professor Birkhead said the problem was brought home to him when his students kept asking him for references because they could not find them in the university's library. ''I asked people in other universities and it became obvious it was ubiquitous. It's happening everywhere.''
The main culprit, he said, was "blindingly obvious - a massive increase in student numbers without the extra resources to cope with them. I had 85 students competing for the same article. There is intense competition for limited resources''.
In the academic year 1993-94 there were 1,580,000 students in full-time education, compared with 998,000 in 1987-88. The redbrick universities have taken the brunt of the increase, without any corresponding rise in funding.
Professor Birkhead said that resources were scarce all round "for education in general and for university libraries in particular". He went on: "One result has been the diminishing number of journals available following successive rounds of cuts in funds for library accessions. And of course, times are hard for students, whose grants have all but disappeared."
Although most university libraries have photocopiers, few if any are completely free to students, and there are often long queues that may lead the lazy and unscrupulous to slice the relevant pages for themselves. Professor Birkhead even suggests a more sinister reason for book vandalism. "From a purely selfish, Darwinian point of view, stealing an article of recommended reading may seem a smart thing to do. The perpetrator gets the article and can answer an exam question on it, while the rest of the class cannot - it's a simple as that."
Nick Gash, a spokesman for the National Union of Students, said the problem had not been raised with the union but, if the anecdotal accounts were truly indicative of a national trend, then funding difficulties must be viewed as the most likely explanation.
He added: "We would want to condemn this in any circumstances because there are such things as photocopiers. It has to be pointed out, however, that surveys have suggested that library budgets are not keeping pace with student numbers, although I'd be loath to suggest that this is the direct cause."
Sussex University decided three years ago to monitor book mutilation because of fears that it was becoming increasingly prevalent. Adrian Peasgood, the university's librarian, said there had been a 15 per cent increase in reported cases over the past 11 months.
He said that although 59 journals and 174 books had been mutilated in the past year, this had to be put into perspective because the library loaned about 700,000 items over the same period.
"You can look at this as either serious or small beer. If you happening to be looking for that key item, it's serious,'' Mr Peasgood said.
Students at Bristol University have been warned about disfiguring books. Peter King, the university's associate librarian, said the practice was probably on the increase.
''This is a long-standing problem and it's true that it's come to our notice quite a lot recently, but it's difficult to get hard and fast information,'' he said.
The same is true at Manchester University where anecdotal accounts suggest an ''increasing trend'', according to a university spokesman.
Oxford University, which is well resourced and has not experienced the rise in student numbers common to some other universities, has had few problems, according to David Vaisey, its Bodley's librarian.
Professor Birkhead deplores most what book slashing represents: ''There used to be an unspoken code of conduct in libraries; if you looked after its contents you could assume that others would do the same, because everyone benefited. It was a kind of literary reciprocal altruism.
''All that seems to be changing, and one of the consequences of increased student numbers is a new selfishness, manifesting itself in the abuse of journals and books.''
If the problem continued, he said, there would be an inevitable call to stop the vandalism by installing video cameras and introducing random searches as students left a library.
A more subtle approach was to wait until exam time. ''Perhaps it might be possible to identify the guilty person by finding the one and only examination answer that contains a near word-perfect synopsis of a missing article,'' he suggests. ''If only.''
Leading article, page 24
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