Another 'Big Deal' Bites the Dust

Citing unsustainable price increases, leaders at Louisiana State University have decided to walk away from their comprehensive subscription deal with Elsevier.

May 24, 2019
 

Louisiana State University will terminate its “big deal” with publisher Elsevier at the end of this year, joining the growing list of U.S. institutions that have recently decided not to renew their bundled journal subscription deals with the publisher.

LSU is just the latest of several U.S. institutions, including the University of California system, Temple University and Florida State University, to announce its intentions to end its business relationship with Elsevier in the last two years.

“For decades, LSU has subscribed to a package of some 1,800 electronic journal titles from Elsevier,” Stacia Haynie, LSU's provost, said in a statement Monday. But “dramatic increases” in subscription costs have made the deal unsustainable, she said.

Renewing LSU’s current five-year contract, which is due to end in six months’ time, would cost the institution at least $2 million annually, said Haynie. Instead, the institution will allocate $1 million to subscribe individually to a smaller number of Elsevier journals on a one-year contract basis.

To access journals LSU no longer subscribes to, the library will offer two options -- an interlibrary loan service that takes about 24 hours and incurs no cost to the library, or an expedited delivery service called Reprints Desk, which takes about two hours and costs the library a fee. The fee is less than what it would cost to purchase a journal article from the publisher directly, which is typically around $30, said Stanley Wilder, dean of LSU libraries.

LSU’s Faculty Senate approved a resolution recommending the cancellation of the subscription package in April. Though the approval was near unanimous, with just one faculty member voting against it, the meeting minutes illustrate that several faculty members have concerns about how the process will be managed. Some faculty members questioned how the library would cope with more interlibrary loan requests and complained that a 24-hour wait could feel like “a lifetime” to busy academics. Others asked for details on how the library will decide which journals to subscribe to, and which not.

Wilder said he is prepared to hire more staff to handle interlibrary loan requests. Over the next six months, the library will be working with faculty to assess to which Elsevier journal titles it should continue to subscribe.

Unlike the University of California system and several European countries that also have recently canceled their Elsevier deals, LSU is not trying to make a point about open access, Wilder said. LSU simply doesn’t have the leverage to try to change the scholarly publishing landscape, he said.

“LSU is not the UC system. We’re not Germany or Hungary trying to break away from the big deal,” he said. “LSU is tiny in comparison.”

Wilder said the decision not to renew the big deal with Elsevier comes down to cost; the Elsevier deal currently accounts for almost a third of the library’s annual $6 million serials budget.

“We’ve reached a point where our serial expenditures are just not sustainable,” he said.

With subscription costs increasing annually by 5 percent, the library has to find an extra $300,000 in new funding each year.

“I’ve been asked why I don’t just ask for more money, and I’ve explained that the issue is not that LSU administrators are reluctant to support collections,” he said. “This is an unsustainable financial model that has to be brought under control.”

Wilder said he purposefully avoided getting into a lengthy negotiation with Elsevier over the bundled subscription.

“We know what to expect out of negotiations -- nobody gets to where they want to go,” he said. “I didn’t see a way out of our situation through the negotiation of a price reduction.”

Tom Reller, vice president of global communication at Elsevier, said the company is willing to offer universities flexible subscription options.

“University strategic objectives change and customers sometimes need to reallocate their funds, so Elsevier provides different options for its customers, including all-access options as well as title-by-title options that provide customers flexibility to choose the most appropriate titles for their collections,” he said in an emailed statement. “We value LSU’s investment in our services and look forward to working with them on the options that best meet the balance of their collection needs and costs.”

Though staff at the LSU library have been working hard to keep faculty members informed of potential changes, Wilder said there are still members of the campus that may be unaware of what is happening.

“We’ve been reaching out to all sorts of LSU departments, attending meetings, having lots of conversations, by phone, email and in person,” he said. “But we still assume the vast majority of faculty don’t yet know. It’s just hard to reach people.”

Wilder said increased press coverage of the scholarly publishing landscape over the past year due to several high-profile cancellations has helped to make faculty members more aware of the issues the library is facing. And many faculty members have a very sophisticated understanding of the scholarly publishing landscape as a result and are largely supportive of the decision to end the subscription deal.

“There were plenty of concerns raised, and almost without exception, they were legitimate and reasonable,” he said. “They were also easily answerable.”

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