No Big Deal: Three Libraries Survive Cuts to Serials Access | ALA Annual 2012

À la carte journal purchasing is back in vogue, it seems. On Saturday at ALA in Anaheim, three librarians took to the podium to describe their experiences after finding that the big deal their library had in place was no longer affordable. The big deal, an arrangement that has been standard in libraries for years (and criticized for almost as long), refers to the purchase of bundles of journals from mega-publishers such as Elsevier and Wiley. The idea is that buying serials this way saves money on subscriptions and on staff time. It has been especially common in the purchase of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and medicine) materials, which have been regarded as too expensive to subscribe to any other way.

Since the big deal became commonplace, alternatives have been proposed and some are in place, such as open access publishing‚ a practice that has various forms but generally means that scholarly articles are available free on the web. But the market for other articles was until recently still relatively safe because researchers who need a specific for-pay article can’t replace it with an open access publication, even if it’s on the same topic. That’s especially the case with scientific articles, which often feature a methods section that is essential to researchers seeking how-to information for experiments. Starting with the economic downturn in 2008, though, the pressure was really on for libraries to find a way to cut costs. The big deals that were previously thought untouchable were suddenly on the table.

Southern Illinois University
Jonathan Nabe, the first presenter to describe his reaction to this scenario, is a science and technology collection development librarian at Morris Library, Southern Illinois University (SIU). Cutting through the philosophical debate he told the audience that it doesn’t matter whether big deals are good or bad, because eventually you won’t be able to afford them anyway and cancellations become a dreary matter of dreary routine.

Morris Library, Nabe said, responded to the recession by making cuts that at first didn’t affect the deals they had with Elsevier and Wiley, which the library regarded as set in stone. In 2009 though, the institution reached the point at which the other materials it would have to cut were more valuable than the journals held as part of the big deal.

What happened afterward was surprising. As Nabe explained, once you leave the big deal you have new indications of its value. Big deals, he said, exhibit the long tail phenomenon, meaning that a small number of articles and journals are read frequently and usage of the rest varies from moderate to abysmal. The consequences that his institution noted were that interlibrary loan (ILL) increased, but manageably; workload decreased; and faculty reaction was minimal and not always negative. Most significantly, a move away from the big deal saves his library in the mid six figures annually.

Leaving the deal, Morris Library cancelled 244 Elsevier journals and 597 Wiley ones. In the two years following the move, the library got ILL requests for articles from 20% of the missing Wiley titles, or an average of 9.5 ILLs per month. This compares to 938 downloads per month for the same journals when they were part of the big deal. Similarly, 26% of the cancelled Elsevier titles saw ILL requests, with 189 transactions compared to 1,621 downloads per month the previous year, illustrating Nabe’s point about the true value of the big deal being revealed by leaving it. He maintains that ILLs show real need, whereas not all downloads are equal‚ the much higher download numbers seen previously sometimes represented a patron viewing the same article multiple times, or fleeting views of materials that users decided weren’t for them.

The increased workload anticipated by moving to individual subscriptions didn’t happen, Nabe explained. Reconciliation‚ the work of checking that the titles you pay for are actually available‚ is no more onerous in a title-by-title arrangement, he said, than when checking big-deal access. Faculty and student backlash was another no-show, with patrons displaying an understanding of the economic pressures on the institution, an empathy that was helped by researcher awareness of the Elsevier boycott.

Libraries that decide on a similar plan won’t find that it’s all plain sailing, though. Be prepared for tough negotiations, said Nabe, who warned of the possibility that publishers may raise their content fees and/or increase the subscription price to the list price that is normally only offered to individuals. Still, he pointed out, the process doesn’t have to be adversarial, as there is always the possibility of future addition of titles by the publisher you are currently cutting.

University of Oregon
Nabe’s experience was echoed by David C. Fowler, an associate professor and head of licensing, grants administration, and collection analysis at the University of Oregon (UO) Libraries. His university, too, was hit by the economic downturn, and during the 2008-2009 period saw a 20% reduction in state funding. A previous serials cancellation project had worked to eliminate duplication so that initially the library was able to hold off further cancellations. However, the point came when cuts were necessary, and the serials budget was slashed by $2.9 million over several rounds of reductions, with the alternative being no money for monographs. In deciding which titles to cut, the library determined the cost-per-use of each journal using 360 Counter journal cost and usage statistics. Each journal was then ranked by this measure, overall and within its aggregator, and the information provided to subject specialists who recommended which journals should go.

Part of the decision was to drop pay-per-view access to Elsevier’s ScienceDirect, which had seen increased usage over time‚ a result, said Fowler, of people overseas using hijacked student accounts to download vast amounts of material. A bigger decision, though, was for UO to collaborate on collection development with two other nearby institutions‚ Oregon State University (OSU) and Portland State University (PSU). The best result of this collaboration, according to Fowler, was a shared Elsevier collection deal.

The school went into negotiations seeking a $58,000 reduction in its Elsevier costs. Elsevier initially asked for separate meetings with each institution, but the librarians refused. Together they approached the company with a combined cancellation figure of 18%, and Elsevier countered with 10%. A compromise was reached when the publisher agreed to reduce the content fee so that only 14% of journals needed to be dropped, the schools could share titles, and the content fee would be 12.5%. Also to its credit, Elsevier released OSU and PSU from three-year contracts so that the schools could enter a new, two-year agreement, which ended in summer 2011.

There were Wiley cancellations, too; 96 titles from that publisher were cut, which saved $166,103. OU also temporarily dropped all Wiley and Blackwell titles in 2009, but in 2010 brought back 278 of them for $353,513. At the same time, the library lost 534 titles that it had accessed through its GWLA (Greater Western Library Alliance) consortium partners. Unfortunately, the staff was, Fowler admitted, battle scarred from its struggles with Elsevier and declined to put together a new mini-deal with Wiley. The library instead agreed to a single-institution enhanced access license that offers users 297 subscribed titles at a cost to the library of $426,191.

The consequences? UO’s 2009 Elsevier bill was approximately $406,500 (this figure does not include access to Cell Press titles or materials for the university’s law school). The first year after the cuts, 2010, it was around $361,000 , and in 2011 and 2012, $372,500 and $390,000, respectively. It will not be until next year that the school is projected to have almost the same Elsevier costs as it did in 2009. The cost for Wiley materials in 2009 was $519,600. In 2010 it was $351,500, and $379,300 and $424,500 for the two years since. The library is expected to re-reach its 2009 costs for Wiley materials in 2015 or 2016.

Since the cuts, ILL numbers have risen dramatically, but Fowler explained that the library attributes that increase to having adopted WorldCat Local during the same period. ILLs of Elsevier and Wiley titles were only up slightly, due, Fowler says, to careful deselection of titles. UO library did experience minor faculty concern over some of the cancellations, especially of STEM titles, but as at SIU, it was less than expected. Students, Fowler noted, saw the dropping of titles as a non-event.

The University of Alabama at Birmingham
The last presenter was T. Scott Plutchak, director of Lister Hill Library of the Health Sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. In 2008, Lister Hill Library renegotiated its big deal just as funding began to dwindle, though, Plutchak noted, he had become increasingly uncomfortable with the agreements his library had in place anyway. The library was spending $1 million a year on ScienceDirect, and the cost was about to go up to one-third of total spending. In a bold move, the librarian told Elsevier that he was willing to spend $300,000 on its materials. If the company’s content fee decreased, he informed them, he would spend close to that amount, but if not, he’d divert some of the money to materials from other publishers. The company refused to lower the content fee and he cut 4,000 titles.

While Plutchak expected substantial pushback from the community, he only heard from 65 faculty members about 153 titles, and reinstated some of them. In 2010, the library continued the trend, cutting more journals, but by now it has been able to add materials back to the collection. At the same time, Plutchak lessened the impact on patrons by lowering the ILL charge and by instituting mediated PPV (pay per view), meaning that the library got the publisher to lower the cost to patrons and it pays part of the charge. This service hasn’t taken off with patrons, however.

In 2010, the Lister Hill Library conducted focus groups to find out why there had been so little community reaction to the cuts and found, to its surprise, that there was considerable frustration among patrons that they had not expressed hitherto. Their reaction to the cuts had been to find substitutes, rely more on abstracts, and take advantage of what Plutchak called a thriving black market in scholarly materials, all of which he said patrons found “easier than jumping through the hoops that we made them jump through.” In fact, the focus group conversations revealed that lack of electronic access to certain materials is “the major issue” that faculty has with the library. In reaction, the library created lists of prominent figures in the subject areas it serves and contacted those people to ask for collection development recommendations. The result is a much better collection, Plutchak explained, and one that’s so efficient that he maintains that he wouldn’t go back to the big-deal situation even if the library had the money.

Plutchak was clear that the experience he describes is “institution and package specific.” Still, it’s clear from the stories related at this program as well as at a similar presentation by David Beales at the Electronic Resources in Libraries conference in Austin, TX, this past April, that libraries have options when it comes to serials subscriptions.

Henrietta Verma About Henrietta Verma

Henrietta Verma is Senior Editorial Communications Specialist at NISO, the National Information Standards Organization, Baltimore, and was formerly the reviews editor at Library Journal.


  1. I wish the transition to OA could be instantaneous…those universities run the risk of underestimating the discouraging power of inconvenience. Do researchers really know what they are missing out on? We need a better way to identify seminal papers…I guess that is an on-going discovery technology challenge.

  2. Franco Toni says:

    I would like to add the report of the similar experience of the most important Italian biomedical library presented at the 4th Qualitative and Quantitative Methods in Libraries held in Limerick last May