‘Big Deal’ Cancellations Gain Momentum

An increasing number of universities are ending, or threatening to end, bundled journal subscriptions with major publishers.

May 8, 2018
 
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Florida State University recently announced plans to cancel its “big deal” with Elsevier, but it is far from the first university to do so.

In recent years, there has been an uptick in the number of reports of libraries dropping their bundled journal deals with big publishers, which can cost upward of $1 million annually.

Rather than subscribing to a large volume of journals in a publisher’s collection, often at a substantial discount off the individual list price, some institutions are choosing to pay only for the journals they determine they need the most.

Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communications at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah, said that more cancellations are likely, but “how big the snowball is going to get” is an unanswered question.

“Will big-deal cancellations continue to bubble along at a slow but steady pace? Will they peter out altogether as libraries and publishers work out new terms that allow the libraries to renew? Will more and more libraries cancel their big deals until publishers finally abandon them?” asked Anderson. “It’s impossible to say at this point; I think all three of those scenarios are possible, though I think the first two are more likely than the third.”

Last year, Anderson published an article at The Scholarly Kitchen looking at big-deal cancellations by North American libraries. He identified 24 libraries that had canceled big deals, another four libraries that canceled but later resubscribed, and three libraries that announced cancellations but didn’t follow through.

Also last year, SPARC, an advocacy group for open access and open education, launched a resource tracking big-deal cancellations worldwide. Greg Tananbaum, a senior consultant at SPARC, said that there is a “growing momentum” toward cancellations.

According to data from SPARC (which may not be comprehensive, said Tananbaum), in 2016 five U.S. and Canadian institutions announced cancellations with big publishers such as Springer Nature, Wiley, Taylor & Francis and Elsevier. In 2017, seven more North American institutions said they planned to cancel their big deals, including the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Kansas State University, among others.

Motivation for Cancellation

Both Tananbaum and Anderson agree that one factor driving cancellations of big deals is that library budgets are not growing at the same rate as the cost of subscriptions. Given budget restrictions, “there’s just a reality that tough choices have to be made,” said Tananbaum. He added that in each of the cases documented in the SPARC tracking resource, the institutions ran “meticulous assessments” to determine the value of their current arrangements, and found that “the value was not positive.” Typically a bundled deal would allow an institution to subscribe to a couple of thousand titles for the same list price as a few hundred individual subscriptions.

“What makes the big deal unsustainable isn’t the structure of the model, but the fact that it absorbs so much of a library’s materials budget, and the price rises steadily from year to year,” said Anderson. “That dynamic leads to an inevitable breaking point, at which the library can no longer afford to pay for it -- or is forced to cancel other, equally desirable (or more desirable) subscriptions in order to keep paying for it.”

Another factor driving cancellations is a desire among some librarians to “stick it to the publishers,” said Anderson. “There is a truly remarkable level of anger that many librarians feel towards the publishers who sell subscriptions under the big-deal model,” he said. “This makes the prospect of canceling a big deal very attractive at a political level.”

Librarians are able to consider canceling big deals because it doesn’t mean going “cold turkey” anymore, said Tananbaum. Interlibrary loan systems can return a journal article in less than 24 hours at relatively low cost to the library, and many articles are available in open-access format for free, with tools like Unpaywall making them easy to find. If a researcher needs a paywalled paper instantly, they can still access that content, without a subscription, for around $30.

Though it is talked about less, the ease of accessing copyrighted papers though sites such as Sci-Hub and ResearchGate have also emboldened librarians, said Joseph Esposito, senior partner at publishing consultancy Clarke & Esposito.

Hard-Core Negotiating

In 2015, the Université de Montréal combined usage and citations data with the results of an extensive survey of faculty and students to determine that 5,893 titles were essential to research needs at the university -- accounting for 12 percent of the institution’s total subscriptions, and around a third of all titles included in big deals.

A similar analysis has since been performed by 28 university libraries in Canada, with some “truly considering unbundling or exiting consortium negotiations to get better deals,” said Stéphanie Gagnon, director of collections at Université de Montréal.

Gagnon and her colleague Richard Dumont, university librarian at Montréal, said that unbundling big deals was a “last resort” strategy for the institution. The institution will first offer what it considers to be a “fair price” based on the needs of the community and the publishers’ pricing, said Dumont.

This approach “seems reasonable,” said Dumont, since four major publishers have accepted the institution’s offers -- Wiley, SAGE, Elsevier and Cambridge University Press. Currently, the institution has two big deals unbundled: Springer Nature (2,116 titles canceled) and Taylor & Francis (2,231 titles canceled).

The Taylor & Francis big deal cost Montréal around half a million U.S. dollars per year for over 2,400 titles. Per title, the average cost was around $200. But Montréal calculated that only 253 titles were being used regularly, meaning the “real” cost was closer to $2,000 per title, said Gagnon. By unbundling this deal and the Springer Nature deal, and by renegotiating all big-deal subscriptions, the institution saves over $770,000 annually, said Gagnon.

Gagnon said she did not think teaching or research has been hindered by the cancellations, since the big deals that were unbundled did not contribute greatly to the needs of the community. Researchers can still access paywalled content they don’t have immediate access to through the interlibrary loan system. “Content is still available, with some hours’ delay,” said Gagnon.

Value for Money

Unlike Montréal, some institutions that have canceled big deals have not ended up saving much money, or negotiating a better deal. Brock University in Ontario, for example, canceled its big deal with Wiley in 2015, only to return a year later for the same price.

Ian Gibson, acting head of collections services at Brock, said the Wiley cancellation was prompted by a “perfect storm” of a weak Canadian dollar and a library budget that was not increasing in line with subscription costs. “The institution had no extra funds to buffer the FX crisis, and the hole in our budget was so big that only canceling Wiley or Elsevier would fill it,” said Gibson.

The institution looked into purchasing back just the most essential titles from Wiley, and found “there was no way to do it for less than we were paying for the big deal.” Gibson said that the university upped the library budget soon after, “and we jumped back into the Wiley deal through our consortium, and the pricing was as if we had never left.”

“Although the overall dollar cost for a big deal is typically enormous, the package usually includes so much content that the per-journal cost is quite low and would be dramatically higher on a per-journal basis if the titles were acquired as individual subscriptions,” said Anderson. Limiting titles, of course, also means that not everyone will get immediate access to the content they want. “This is probably the primary reason so many libraries (mine included) have held on to their big deals as long as they have.”

Getting Faculty on Board

At Montréal, the library worked hard to get faculty and student support before making any cancellations, said Gagnon. “We put in a lot of energy to explain, convince, answer and demonstrate to our staff and to the community what we were doing,” said Gagnon. The library built a website, published press releases and organized meetings. “It was a really global community project,” she said.

Perhaps one of the most surprising aspects of Florida State University’s pending cancellation of its big deal with Elsevier is that the Faculty Senate approved it, despite concerns that they would not be able to access journals as freely as they do now.

“The one question I keep getting asked is, ‘How did you get your faculty to agree to it?’” said Roy Ziegler, associate dean for collections and access at Florida State University. It hasn’t been an easy process, but outreach efforts have helped faculty to understand why this route is necessary. “Our faculty are willing to roll with it for now,” he said. “We don’t think our new model will do harm, but it will force faculty to change their behavior slightly -- there’s a re-education piece.”

FSU will offer unmediated, instant access to content that is not subscribed to for faculty and graduate students at a cost of around $30 to the library, but will encourage them to access materials through the slower interlibrary loan system as much as possible. Undergraduate students will only have the option to go the slower (cheaper) route. Avoiding duplicated instant-access purchases will be a key factor in keeping costs down, said Ziegler.

By pulling out of its statewide agreement with Elsevier, FSU will lose access to Elsevier’s Freedom Collection -- a system by which institutions have access to all nonsubscribed journal content at a significantly reduced rate. Ziegler said that FSU does “have an offer on the table right now” from Elsevier, but it’s not what they wanted. “If that offer gets better, we could stay in,” he said. FSU's current deal with Elsevier costs around $1.8 million annually -- 22 percent of the library's total materials budget.

In an emailed statement, Elsevier said that the Freedom Collection is “still preferred by the vast majority of our customers who want the best value we can provide, but some customers want more purchasing options, and for them we’re happy to provide such flexibility.” The statement continued, “We generally see more new Freedom Collection customers than those who move to title by title, but there’s no particular trend over time.”

Taylor & Francis, Wiley, SAGE and Springer Nature declined to comment for this article.

A Shortsighted Decision?

Kent Anderson, CEO of publishing data analytics company RedLink, and former president of the Society for Scholarly Publishing, said that institutions that cancel big deals are making a “selfish” and shortsighted decision, an issue he also wrote about in a recent article for The Scholarly Kitchen. He compared canceling a big deal to canceling a newspaper subscription; journalists lose their jobs, local media collapses and soon no one knows what’s happening inside government. 

Canceling big deals means that down the road, publishers won’t be able to keep up with the volume of research that is being produced, he said. He warned that if libraries and publishers continued to be “at loggerheads against each other,” they would ultimately alienate the researchers they are both trying to serve.

A loss of diversity in the publishing ecosystem concerns Kent Anderson. The survival of journals from smaller scholarly societies depends on their inclusion in big deals, he said. As the choice of publications to publish in gets “fewer and worse,” time to publication will get longer.

While many libraries say they are forced to cancel big deals because of budget constraints, Kent Anderson points out that library budgets are often just a tiny fraction of an institution’s total budget, suggesting that the money could be better allocated to prioritize these resources.

But Rick Anderson, of the University of Utah, said that suggesting the root of the issue is a funding problem, rather than a pricing problem, “feels a little bit like the bully on the playground taking our lunch money and then saying, ‘Hey, I’m not the problem, your mom needs to give you more lunch money.’”

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