The Beginning of the End for the 'Big Deal'?

Inspired by University of California’s decision to drop its “big deal” with Elsevier, university librarians are laying the foundation to follow suit.

March 27, 2019
 
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University of California system administrators shook up the scholarly publishing world earlier this month when they announced their decision to ditch their bundled journal subscription deal with Elsevier.

University librarians have long griped about the rising cost of their “big deals” with major publishers, but relatively few have followed through on threats to cancel them -- fearing the impact that losing instant access to new research may have on their institution’s academic standing.

The UC system’s cancellation has given many librarians hope that they, too, can push for change. If one of the largest university systems in the country can do it, why can’t they?

The University of Virginia, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Minnesota, Duke University and Iowa State University are among the institutions whose librarians have recently published statements in support of the UC system’s decision.

The statements praise the UC system for fighting for a financially sustainable scholarly publishing model and gaining the support of faculty members in the process, but they also serve a strategic purpose -- priming academics for tougher negotiating tactics and the possibility of more big deal cancellations to come.

“A lot of people are feeling inspired by what the UC system did,” said Elaine Westbrooks, vice provost of university libraries at UNC Chapel Hill. “They did what many of us thought was unthinkable.”

Westbrooks is preparing to enter into negotiations with Elsevier next month. The university’s one-year contract with Elsevier is due to expire in December. She is tight-lipped about her negotiating strategy but says she is “open to all options” -- including the possibility of not reaching a deal.

Westbrooks has been meeting with faculty, students and staff for the past year to discuss the library’s position on the Elsevier deal and ascertain which Elsevier journals and services they value most.

“We’re looking at everything, every data point we have,” said Westbrooks.

UNC Chapel Hill ditched its big deal with Wiley, another global publisher, last December and replaced it with an “à la carte” option that lets the university subscribe individually to titles it deems most essential. The change has not led to widespread revolt by faculty members, but some weren’t happy about losing instant access to the latest research, said Westbrooks.

“There have been calls to reinstate some of the journals,” she said. “The inconvenience has been a factor that some faculty have brought up.”

The stakes for breaking up UNC Chapel Hill’s big deal with Elsevier are higher, said Westbrooks. It’s a bigger and more costly deal that includes more titles academics use frequently. But the deal as it currently exists “is just not sustainable,” she said.

“I have a constrained budget,” she noted.

More than 50 big deals have been canceled by institutions worldwide since 2008, according to open-access advocacy group SPARC, which tracks big deal cancellations. In recent years, the number of cancellations has picked up, particularly in Europe, where several national consortia have dropped deals with Elsevier, Taylor and Francis, Springer Nature, and Wiley.

“The big deal dam has been cracking for a while now,” said Rick Anderson, associate dean for collections and scholarly communications at the Marriott Library at the University of Utah.

“I think there’s no question that libraries are becoming more willing to cancel these deals, and this feeling had been building for a very long time,” said Anderson. “But I think the big question is whether and to what degree faculty will support these cancellations. We’ve seen examples of libraries canceling, and the faculty being very supportive, and we’ve seen examples of faculty being upset and wanting the library to reinstate access.”

“Ultimately I think the libraries that are most successful at extricating themselves from the big deal will not necessarily be the ones that give their faculty the most warning, but rather the ones that do the best job of actually involving faculty in the decision making,” said Anderson.

UC system library leaders have been very open about their ambitions and goals for scholarly publishing, said Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia Library. “I was relieved they ended up walking away from Elsevier,” he said. If the UC system had settled for a deal that did not reduce costs, it would have set a bad precedent for other institutions going into negotiations, he said.

The UC system wanted a read-and-publish deal with Elsevier, which would have rolled the cost of open-access publishing into the cost of accessing paywalled content. Not all librarians are in agreement that read-and-publish deals are the best way forward, but everyone agrees that the status quo is “not sustainable,” said Butler. “It’s not just about open access -- it’s also about controlling costs.”

The University of Virginia is two years out from its next round of big deal negotiations, said Butler. “We’re lucky in that we can sit back in luxury and watch how other institutions fare without their big deals,” he said. “But two years will go by in a flash. We are starting these conversations on campus now.”

“The mood is we’ve got to do something about this, this can’t continue the way it is,” said Jeff Kosokoff, assistant university librarian for collection strategy at Duke University. “I’m glad UC was able to do it. I think for them, a key part of their strategy was to spend many years communicating with their faculty to get to this point,” he said. “Faculty have to be onboard.”

Faculty at Duke are now coming to the library and asking about its plans for the future, said Kosokoff.

"Now that the University of California has done this, it makes it clear that it’s possible,” he said.

Kosokoff and colleagues started a student data project last year called “Breaking the Bundle,” which will analyze the university's journal subscription costs. Duke just signed a three-year renewal with Elsevier, but Kosokoff doesn’t see this as a problem. Three years will be a good amount of time to build support and gather the data needed to be “tougher negotiators” next time around, he said.

“Three years is a long time given how quickly things are moving,” said Kosokoff. “I think we’ll see more transformative deals going through. And by the time it comes for us to negotiate, there may be a different menu of options available to us.”

Elsevier has not yet revoked access to its content in the UC system, so it is too soon to say what the impact has been on faculty, students and staff, said Jeff Mackie Mason, university librarian at UC Berkeley. The system is not immediately planning to subscribe to individual journals once access is cut off, he said. “We’ll see how things play out, collecting and analyzing data for a while.”

The big deal model “made life very easy” for librarians by offering access to whole journal catalogs for one annual lump sum. It’s nice to have access to everything, said Butler. But there is a “long tail of filler” that never gets used.

Lauren Pressley, president of the Association of College and Research Libraries and director of the University of Washington Tacoma Library, said that the UC system news has inspired many institutions to start having conversations about the value of big deal subscriptions on their campuses. But Pressley predicts it may be some time before the impact of these conversations is known.

“I’d expect that any institution wishing to follow the path that UC has laid out will take the time to engage with faculty and build a shared vision, the same way that UC did with their faculty,” she said.

Both Pressley and Westbrooks said they had observed institutions signing shorter and shorter contracts.

“I don’t know anyone who would consider signing a five-year deal anymore,” said Westbrooks.

The buzz created by the UC system’s cancellation has meant that for the first time, it is not just librarians talking about the challenges they face in providing access to research.

“This is a really pivotal moment,” said Westbrooks. “Librarians have been talking about these issues for 20 years. But now we have some traction and the opportunity to do something about it.”

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