Major research libraries in Britain have told the two largest journal publishers that they will not renew their "big deals" with them if they do not make significant real-terms price reductions.
Research Libraries UK, which includes the Russell Group university libraries, as well as Britain's national libraries and Trinity College Library Dublin, have told Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell that they will not renew their current deals when they expire at the end of this year unless the concession is made.
Big deals involve libraries paying a blanket fee for electronic access to a publisher’s entire journal catalog. They were initially welcomed by librarians when they were first introduced a decade ago. However, David Prosser, RLUK’s executive director, said consistent above-inflation price increases and the current squeeze on library budgets meant that big deals were accounting for an ever-greater proportion of libraries’ budgets and were no longer affordable.
Elsevier publishes around 2,000 journals, including The Lancet and Cell. Wiley-Blackwell publishes around 1,500 journals. Publishers argue that big deals have seen the unit cost of access to research articles drop considerably and that price rises are justified due to the ongoing expansion in research outputs and, consequently, journals.
But Prosser said publishers had made large savings from the shift to electronic submission and distribution, which had "not necessarily been passed on to the customer."
If the libraries cancel their big deals, they intend to make savings by buying only high-use journals from the publishers. Articles from lower-use journals will be shared between them in an electronic version of an inter-library loan. Prosser admitted that the publishers might react by putting up the price of high-use journals, but predicted that such a move would fall foul of competition authorities. He said he expected that libraries would already be talking to researchers about the titles that could be dropped with the least impact.
"It is not a question of whether we drop journals, it is a question of which we drop," he said. "In my view it is better to drop low-use titles bundled into packages than to drop medium-use titles from smaller publishers outside big deals [so that we maintain] a healthy publishing environment with a wide variety of publishers."
RLUK also wants publishers to quote prices and price rises in sterling so that library budgets are not affected by currency fluctuations.
"If you are spending over £1 million ($1.64 million) a year on one big deal those fluctuations can be quite significant," he said. "They should be a risk for commercial bodies to take on board rather than public sector bodies like universities."
He said Russell Group vice chancellors were backing the librarians’ stance, as was the National Union of Students.
Usman Ali, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, said: "For too long private publishing companies have been getting away with gouging universities on journal costs. It is time the publishing companies made themselves accountable to the wider academic community in the UK."
Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell declined to comment.