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More Research Libraries Decline “Big Deal” Subscription Contracts with Publishers

The impact of COVID-19 increases the urgency for innovative approaches for barrier-free access to information.
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When the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill and the entire State University of New York (SUNY) system (the SUNY Libraries Consortium) ended their “big deal” contracts with Elsevier last month, it wasn’t because of COVID-19. But with the pandemic causing budget shortfalls at universities across Canada and the United States, these big deal cancellations may show the way for other institutions now facing negotiations with publishers. Growing constraints on library budgets have increased the urgency of research libraries’ need to reassess the benefits to scholars of so-called big deal packages—multiyear subscriptions to bundles of journals. Considering the financial impact of COVID-19 on research and educational institutions, it is clear that access to digital collections will need innovative, cost-effective approaches.

“The big deal is no longer as valuable to our campus community as it once was,” said Elaine L. Westbrooks, vice provost for University Libraries and university librarian at UNC–Chapel Hill. “Carolina had no choice but to break our big deal with Elsevier because we could not negotiate a license that aligned with our values: affordability, transparency, sustainability, and open access. We will continue to work with UNC–Chapel Hill researchers around these values and we will continue to build awareness regarding the complexities of a scholarly publishing ecosystem that is not working for anyone other than a select group of for-profit scholarly publishers. I look forward to sitting down with Elsevier again or any other publisher that is open to rethinking how research universities can make their research open to all.”

UNC–Chapel Hill also negotiated a “read-and-publish” agreement with SAGE Publishing before canceling their big deal with Elsevier. Part of the subscription fees that the library pays for SAGE content will cover the costs of open access publishing for a number of UNC–Chapel Hill authors in SAGE publications, at no additional cost to the library. Westbrooks emphasized the importance of libraries actively pursuing strategic alternatives to big deals.

Similarly, the SUNY Libraries allowed their multiyear big deal contract to expire on April 1, negotiating instead for fewer titles at a lower cost. “While it is disappointing that we could not come to an agreement with Elsevier on the ScienceDirect package, the University at Albany Libraries are happy that we were able to negotiate a plan that will meet our student and faculty research needs and still be affordable,” said Rebecca L. Mugridge, dean of University Libraries for the University at Albany, SUNY. “Publishers of scholarly content need to recognize that while they might have monopoly power over their products, their primary customers face relatively flat budgets, and perhaps worse, in the current COVID-19 crisis. They must adjust their pricing practices for this ecosystem to maintain its balance.”

The 64-campus SUNY system includes three ARL member institutions: University at Albany, University at Buffalo, and Stony Brook University. They, along with many ARL member libraries, have been working in collaboration with scholars and institutional senior administrators to reevaluate the value of big deals. The Libraries of the University of California (UC) withdrew from negotiations with Elsevier in February 2019. The UC Libraries were seeking a “transformative agreement” that would leverage the subscription mechanism to fund the open access publication of articles published by any UC faculty. Strong support from faculty across the UC system for the libraries’ decision to walk away—which meant a loss of access to current content—was an important signal.

“The SUNY Libraries Consortium approached our big deal negotiation with Elsevier with the explicit intent to save money—we felt strongly that the cost of the package deal was, and remains, woefully out of line with usage and need and we based our negotiations on that premise. The University of California’s decision to not renew their ScienceDirect, along with their faculty’s commitment to open knowledge sharing, provided us with a peer:peer faculty network that acknowledged that the associated costs were astronomical and that libraries needed to walk away in order to change the conversation,” said Evviva Weinraub, vice provost for University Libraries, University at Buffalo, SUNY.

Weinraub also noted that there are new tools available to libraries to save money with confidence that their communities can still access critically important content. “We worked closely with Unpaywall to gather more granular data on usage and were able to identify a number of core titles that met the diverse research needs of SUNY while allowing us to carefully review the cost/benefit analysis of each title,” she explained. “We did not enter this negotiation with the explicit intention of it being a transformative agreement, but the agreement we ended with on the other side, transformed in terms of financials, but more importantly, it provided a platform for a very different conversation with our faculty and administration.”

At Iowa State University, that conversation included the Office of the Senior Vice President and Provost, Iowa State governing bodies, faculty, and students. At the end of April, Iowa State University Library announced that it was foregoing multiyear deals with Elsevier in favor of subscribing to journals on a title-by-title basis.

“As a trusted partner in the research enterprise, research library leaders proactively engage with scholars and senior administrators to ensure they are making the best possible decisions. These essential partnerships are even more critical now, as scholars benefit from barrier-free access at a scale not previously available to them, and senior administrators face extremely tough financial conditions,” said Mary Lee Kennedy, ARL executive director. “The COVID-19 financial fallout is highlighting the benefit of open access and the urgency of affordable subscription models that expand access in new ways.”

The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC) maintains a database of big deal cancellations, including where available the estimated annual savings, which can be in the millions of dollars. Notable cancellations within ARL include the LSU Libraries, which cancelled their bundle subscription with Elsevier in January after the Faculty Senate approved a resolution recommending the cancellation last spring. And in November 2018, Florida State University (FSU) Libraries, after a unanimous vote of support from the Faculty Senate, declined their big deal by subscribing only to “the most highly used critical Elsevier titles.”

Support from faculty—and students—was also key at Stony Brook University in their negotiations with Elsevier. “Stony Brook University Libraries, along with our colleagues across the State University of New York system, recognize the importance of maintaining affordable and sustainable access to scholarship for now and into the future. After extensive negotiations with Elsevier and not reaching mutually acceptable terms, the decision was made to cancel our ScienceDirect big deal and subscribe to a very reduced list of 250 titles. Stony Brook University had full support from its faculty and students throughout the negotiations and for the final agreement. The extensive efforts to bring awareness (and education) on the unsustainable nature of the commercial publishing landscape was key to getting buy-in from the user community,” said Shafeek Fazal, interim dean of University Libraries, Stony Brook University, SUNY. “The library stands ready to support users with alternative access means and to encourage more open access publishing.”

These negotiations are not all about saving money, or all about budget pressures. Research libraries are also helping the community imagine, transform, and create new models for publishing that are cost effective and more accessible. This pandemic only further demonstrates the need for access, flexibility, and substantive change, and underscores the value of new partnerships that were already underway.

Some libraries, like UNC–Chapel Hill, have negotiated successful transformative or read-and-publish agreements that give their institutions access to a publisher’s paywalled content while also providing for open access publishing of articles by faculty authors on their campuses. The first North American read-and-publish agreement, signed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Libraries and the Royal Society of Chemistry in June 2018, combined “traditional subscription-based access to Royal Society of Chemistry articles for the MIT community with immediate open access to MIT-authored articles, making them freely available to all audiences at the time of publication.”

In January 2020, MIT and three other research institutions—the University of California, Carnegie Mellon University, and Iowa State University—entered into an agreement with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) covering both access to and open access publication in ACM’s journals, proceedings, and magazines for those universities. “This agreement with ACM is a model for new kinds of collaborations between research libraries and scholarly societies,” said Chris Bourg, director of MIT Libraries. “We are especially pleased that the agreement aligns with the MIT Framework for Publisher Contracts, published in October 2019 and endorsed by over 100 libraries and consortia. When scholarly societies and libraries work together, we can forge sustainable paths to achieving immediate open access to scholarly research.”

Other recent read-and-publish contracts negotiated by ARL member libraries include agreements between University of Toronto Libraries and Karger Publishers, between UC Libraries and Cambridge University Press, and between UC Libraries and the Public Library of Science (PLOS). The agreement between UC and PLOS provides for reduced or subsidized article processing charges.

The Association of Research Libraries will continue to inform, shape, and advocate for the continued efforts of research libraries toward establishing new models that are robust and sustainable, in order to deliver the greatest possible benefit to scholars and scholarship.


About the Association of Research Libraries

The Association of Research Libraries (ARL) is a nonprofit organization of 124 research libraries in Canada and the US whose mission is to advance research, learning, and scholarly communication. The Association fosters the open exchange of ideas and expertise, promotes equity and diversity, and pursues advocacy and public policy efforts that reflect the values of the library, scholarly, and higher education communities. ARL forges partnerships and catalyzes the collective efforts of research libraries to enable knowledge creation and to achieve enduring and barrier-free access to information. ARL is on the web at ARL.org.

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