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Magazines > Information Today > September 2011

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Information Today

Vol. 28 No. 8 — September 2011

FEATURE
The Big Deal: Not Price But Cost
by Richard Poynder


First introduced by Academic Press (AP) in 1996, the Big Deal—in which publishers sell online subscriptions to large bundles of electronic journals—is now the principal means by which academics access research literature. When it was introduced, the Big Deal was widely seen as a solution to the so-called serials crisis, and both publishers and librarians embraced it enthusiastically. However, the Big Deal today is the biggest bugbear for librarians and currently the focus of a face-off between U.K. librarians and publishers. How did an initiative that was once viewed so positively become an object of dislike and derision? What is the solution?

In the early 1990s, scholarly publishers were increasingly concerned about what had become known as the serials crisis. With journal subscriptions rising at about 10% per annum, library budgets were struggling to keep up, and every time the price of a journal increased, a few more libraries canceled their subscriptions. This led publishers to increase prices further, which triggered another round of cancellations. It was a vicious cycle that many felt threatened to destroy the 350-year-old scholarly publishing system.

One of the publishers puzzling over this problem was Jan Velterop, then-European managing director at AP. Velterop created a graph extrapolating what AP would have to charge for a typical journal if its subscription base fell away, down to a single remaining subscription. It was a scary picture of the future publishers faced unless something changed.

To add to the challenge, publishers knew they needed to start making their journals available electronically, which they saw as a major organizational challenge. As Velterop explains today, “We feared there would be massive administrative overhead of authentication of different portfolios of journals to different customers.”

A Plan Emerges

Mulling over these challenges at the 1993 Frankfurt Book Fair with AP CEO Pieter Bolman, Velterop recalled that the U.K. academic network by the name of JANET was about to be upgraded, but it offered very little in the way of content. He also knew that the U.K.’s Higher Education Funding Council (HEFCE) was planning to provide “ top-sliced” funding for library projects.

A plan began to emerge: What if HEFCE would agree to fund a multijournal, multiyear license to provide researchers in all U.K. higher education establishments with free-at-the-point-of-use access to AP’s 200 titles?

Such an arrangement would offer a threefold benefit. First, the administrative task of providing electronic access to journals would be considerably easier and cheaper. Velterop explains it would mean “that there was just one collection of journals (i.e., the entire portfolio published by AP) and just one customer.” Second, if the license fee was paid by means of top-slicing, the pressure on library budgets would be less severe. Finally, by bundling its entire portfolio of journals in a single product, AP could hope to break the cancellation cycle, since the bundle would be offered on an all-or-nothing basis.

Velterop’s proposal fit with his conviction that providing researchers with access to the literature should be equivalent to giving them desks and chairs. “I came to see the provision of access to scientific journals as a kind of ‘infrastructural’ provision to universities and the science world generally, and a nation-wide arrangement fitted that picture,” he says.

In the event, HEFCE liked Velterop’s proposal, and after overcoming some initial resistance from its parent company (Harcourt), AP signed a 3-year licensing contract with HEFCE. Thus was born the first Big Deal, which went live in January 1996 in the U.K.

Speaking to Information World Review (IWR) in November 1995, AP’s Vincent Cassady explained: “We are trying to jump out of the subscription spiral where library funding goes down and, consequently, prices go up, so subscriptions drop even further.”

AP’s innovation appeared to be a stroke of genius with both librarians and researchers jumping on it eagerly. And while the practice of top-sliced funding was later to fall out of favor, a growing number of library consortia around the world had signed their own Big Deals by then, a trend led by the U.S.-based OhioLink, the Ontario Academic Research Libraries (OARL) consortium in Canada, and the PICA group of universities in Germany and the Netherlands. In Great Britain, Research Libraries UK ( RLUK ) later came to play a similar consortial role. Importantly, other publishers also saw the logic of the Big Deal and rushed to introduce their own offerings.

All You Can Eat

So how does the Big Deal (aka “journal bundling”) work in practice?

A Big Deal “may consist of hundreds of titles—often the publisher’s entire journals’ list—sold in a bundled package to a consortium of libraries on a one-price, one-size-fits-all basis,” according to Ingenta’s Mark Rowse in 2002.

In other words, research libraries combine to buy a single all-you-can eat subscription for a set fee and for a set number of years (usually 3). This fee is invariably based on the cost of the member institutions’ historical print subscriptions. As Rowse explained, “A publisher might supply a whole list for the price of the sum of the original print subscriptions of a library consortium, with an electronic premium added, generally in the range of between 5 and 15 percent.” In addition, a built-in percentage increase of around 6% per annum became standard.

For libraries, the perceived benefit of the Big Deal was “access to a greater number of journal titles and a stronger negotiating position through the purchase of a greater volume of content by large consortia,” says Fred Friend, honorary director scholarly communication at University College London.

The Big Deal was also welcomed by researchers because they naturally want access to as much of the research literature as possible. And as authors, they welcomed the greater potential readership made possible when other researchers can search across large bundles of electronic journals. Likewise, those acting as academic editors craved the greater potential readership they assumed the Big Deal would provide for their journals.

But it was the increase in access that was most frequently stressed by advocates of the Big Deal. Since Big Deals generally aggregate the journal collections of all the members of the consortium, says Ivy Anderson, director of collections at California Digital Library, any title subscribed to by a member institution “may become available across the entire consortium.”

Writing in D-Lib Magazine in 2004, OhioLink’s Tom Sanville and California Institute of the Arts’ Jeffrey Gatten reported: “OhioLINK Big Deals typically license 100%, or very close to it, of a publisher’s title list, meaning an average of 75% to 80% of the titles are new to each university.”

For smaller institutions (historically unable to afford many journals), this was particularly beneficial. As Sanville and Gatten pointed out, “[I]t is not uncommon for small institutions to have few or none print or electronic subscriptions prior to a Big Deal, making almost all the journals resulting from a Big Deal new to our community and liberal arts colleges.”

But while the smaller members of the consortium may have had the most to gain from the Big Deal, every organization that signed up gained access to a wealth of new material. And this gain has grown over time, says Audrey McCulloch, acting CEO of the Association of Learned and Professional Society Publishers ( ALPSP ). “A 2009 ALPSP survey reported that on average the number of journals available via libraries more than doubled between 2000 and 2009,” she says, “and the librarians responding widely attributed this to the success of Big Deals.” In short, says Bolman, the advent of the Big Deal was a “win-win-win for authors, librarians and publishers.”

Bête Noire

So why has the Big Deal become librarians’ greatest bête noire 15 years after its introduction?

Anderson points to three issues, concerns that only actually became apparent over time. These she characterizes as budgetary concerns, policy concerns, and systemic concerns.

“From a budgetary perspective, purchasing journals in this manner essentially reduces an institution’s budget to a handful of large fixed-block expenditures, seriously undermining any budget flexibility,” she says. “In an era of expanding resources, this was less of a problem; right now, it’s a huge problem.”

In other words, libraries discovered that even a handful of Big Deals can quickly consume most of their serials budget. After all, a large institution can expect to pay several million dollars for a Big Deal license.

Soon the Big Deals were not only devouring most of the serials budget but money that had been allocated to buy monographs as well, which had an impact on scientists and other researchers alike, a situation exacerbated by the fact that the proportion of research university funding allocated to libraries has been falling over time.

“Big Deals consume a disproportionately large percentage of the total library materials budget, and often the purchase of books suffers because monies have to be prioritised for journals,” says Paul Ayris, director of library services at University College London. “This affects scholarship in the Arts, Humanities and some Social Sciences since the unit of publication in these areas is still the book.”

As library budgets have fallen relatively and journal prices have risen, the problem has become increasingly serious. Earlier this year, The Economist reported that 65% of the money spent on content in academic libraries now goes on journals, “up from a little more than half ten years ago.”

In short, the Big Deal turned out to be a cuckoo: Once in the nest, it tends to consume everything, throwing out the other fledglings in the process.

Anderson says budgetary concerns are compounded by the policy constraints that arise from the all-or-nothing, take-it-all-leave-it nature of the Big Deal. “Generally they don’t allow a purchaser to cancel any content in order to reduce expenditures—if a library needs to cut expenditures, it can only do so by walking away from that publisher’s journals entirely, or reverting to title-by-title purchasing at a much higher cost—essentially reversing all of the previous gains. So once you ‘buy in’ to one of these deals, exiting or scaling back both become very difficult—once you’re in, you’re in for good.” To sign a Big Deal is to enter into a Faustian bargain with a publisher, says Anderson.

This has meant that libraries have found it difficult, if not impossible, to adjust their holdings to accommodate tighter budgets, or changes in institutional research interests and/or priorities.

We should note that publishers deny that the Big Deal is inflexible. “There has always been this perception in the industry that the Big Deal is an all-or-nothing situation,” says John Tagler, vice president and executive director at the Association of American Publishers. “That’s not right: Libraries can take all of their journals in print, they can take them in both electronic and print formats, they can take them all electronically, or they can take a subset in electronic only. Additionally, they can take whatever titles they want, or they can take subject collections—which offer the complete list in whatever field they choose.”

Anderson agrees that not all Big Deals are alike. “There have also been attempts to introduce options into these models—for example, fixed versus growing packages, or subject collections as well as complete collections. And there have been any number of attempts to experiment with different pricing models, such as core versus peripheral journals, token-based access, etc. Tiered pricing is the one model that seems to have gained hold.”

Nevertheless, she says, “Other than these various pricing experiments, the basic publisher premise of locking in a large fixed expenditure that then admits of little to no flexibility at the individual title level has remained a constant.” Above all, she adds, “One still can’t do what one can do in just about any other rationally functioning market; offer to pay less for the same product.”

Systemic Effect

The third problem the Big Deal poses is that it has a negative systemic effect on the publishing ecosystem, says Anderson. Essentially, it allows a handful of large publishers to acquire increasing power and control over the market and prices. “These deals have taken on a monstrous life of their own, becoming more and more bloated and insatiable over time,” she says, “squeezing out competition.”

In other words, it is not just libraries that are negatively impacted by the Big Deal; publishers are too. This then creates a negative feedback loop that disadvantages librarians even more.

How does this work? In order to fund the increasingly expensive Big Deals offered by industry behemoths, libraries find they have no choice but to cancel journals published by smaller companies that are unable to offer their own Big Deals.

As the pressure on these smaller publishers grows, many give up the struggle and sell out to a larger competitor. Since this increases the size and the cost of the acquiring company’s Big Deal, that company consumes an even greater slice of library budgets, strengthens its power to call the shots, and further distorting the market.

The Big Deal has led to “a vicious cycle in which an ever-larger number of journals accrue to an ever-smaller number of publishers,” says Anderson, “both through publisher acquisitions and mergers and because societies have been seduced by the promise of wider circulation and higher revenue that the big-deal publishers offer them.” Four years after pioneering the Big Deal, AP was acquired and is now part of Reed Elsevier.

But it is not just the minnows that are impacted by the Big Deal. Prestigious international publishers such as Nature Publishing Group (NPG), which publishes 90 journals, are also affected as they struggle to compete for increasingly scarce library dollars. “Libraries find the majority of their budgets are taken up by a few large publishers,” says David Hoole, director of brand marketing and institutional relations at NPG. “There is [therefore] little opportunity [for libraries] to make collection decisions on a title-by-title basis, taking into account value-for-money and usage.”

He adds that this makes it harder for smaller players such as NPG to compete. “In our view, this creates a barrier to entry for new titles, discouraging healthy competition and disadvantaging smaller publishers.”

Even large publishers who offer their own Big Deals can struggle to launch new journals in such an environment. “Taylor & Francis remains committed to launching new journals in developing fields of research, and to giving those communities a means to communicate their research,” says Ian Bannerman, director of journals at Taylor & Francis. “Nonetheless, the Big De al makes it challenging to establish these titles and allocate them the resources that they deserve.”

Some smaller publishers have sought safety in numbers, banding together to offer their own Big Deals. For instance, that is the objective of the Learned Journals Collection. Launched in 2003 by the ALPSP, the Learned Journals Collection is managed in partnership with SWETS. The aim is to offer “a cross-publisher collection allowing smaller publishers to participate in a Big Deal,” says McCulloch.

However such initiatives— BioOne and ProjectMUSE are similar—serve only to perpetuate the Big Deal. While they may help smaller publishers survive, they do not address the larger problem that the Big Deal raises for scholarly communication.

The Librarian’s Dilemma

However, we should note that while many librarians jumped at the Big Deal without a second thought, others advised caution. In 2001, for instance, Kenneth Frazier—director of libraries at the University of Wisconsin, Madison (and the person who popularized the term “Big Deal”)—called on his colleagues to resist its siren call.

Writing in D-Lib Magazine, Frazier warned that the Big Deal had presented librarians with a classic prisoner’s dilemma. In signing up for it, he cautioned that libraries obtained benefits for their own institution (greater access at a discounted price) at the expense of the wider community. Moreover, he says the Big Deal offered only short-term benefits and would eventually bite those signing up to it in the back.

In deciding whether or not to opt for the Big Deal, Frazier suggested the profession faced a “Librarians’ Dilemma.” “The current generation of library directors is engaged in a dangerous ‘game’ in which short-term institutional benefits are achieved at the long-term expense of the academic community,” he says. “The game is a vivid illustration of the nearly overwhelming temptation to pursue private ends in transactions where community interests are at stake.”

He added that whatever its benefits, the Big Deal “will weaken the power of librarians and consumers to influence scholarly communication systems in the future. Librarians will lose the opportunity to shape the content or quality of journal literature through the selection process.”

He also noted that there’s “no question that the Big Deal offers desirable short-term benefits, including expanded information access for the library's licensed users… [but] …Those who follow us will face the all-or-nothing choice of paying whatever publishers want or giving up an indispensable resource.”

In short, libraries were in danger of making their budget a hostage to fortune and giving publishers even greater power than they already had over scholarly communication. Nevertheless, even skeptics found the siren call hard to resist. Being able to offer users immediate access to so much more content (and at a discounted rate) was just too tempting for most.

Perhaps they hoped that by the time the multiyear contract expired the world would somehow have changed. The more cynical might even have reasoned that by the time their institution’s contract expired they would have moved on, and it would fall to someone else to recover the situation.

In the event, when the Big Deal came up for renewal, librarians found they had relatively less money to pay for a product that had increased in price—confronting them with a stark choice: scrape the money together to pay publishers their asking price or face the painful task of telling researchers that their access to the literatures was about to be severely curtailed.

As Deborah Shorley, director of library services at London University’s Imperial College, points out, “It is much, much harder to take something away from researchers than if you had never provided it to them in the first place.”

This led some to compare signing the Big Deal to experimenting with an addictive substance, with publishers cast in the role of drug dealers offering low-price introductory samples and then increasing the price when users become habituated.

Publishers understandably bridle at such analogies. When I put the idea to Tagler, he rejected it forcefully—although some might be inclined to interpret his reply as tacit agreement: “It is not a publisher restriction,” he says. “It is an audience requirement.”

Flying Blind

But it would be wrong to portray the Big Deal as a cunning plan by publishers to entrap librarians. In reality, it would appear it was not much of a plan at all. So any comparison with drug dealing is inapposite.

For a start, the pricing formula used for the Big Deal was essentially a kludge. As Bolman now confesses, using an institution’s 1996 paper holdings as the foundation of an electronic content licence was a “fundamental weakness” in the business model. “Who would remember (or care!) what these were 5 or 10 years hence?” he says.

For Tagler, the truth is that “everybody was flying blind.” Publishers also appear to have been too panicked by the escalating serials crisis to think through the long-term implications of what they were embarking on. In this light the introduction of the Big Deal was less a strategic decision, more crisis management.

This is neatly symbolized by HEFCE’s later discovery that, due to a typo in its contract with AP, it had actually signed a 4-year licensing deal not a 3-year one.

But why, given its fundamental weakness, did not publishers develop a more workable pricing formula later? In fact, that was the plan, says Bolman. “Our first contracts were for three years and we fully (albeit probably foolishly) expected to have come up with a better, more sustainable idea after that first period.”

He adds: “We did consider another idea: totally decouple e- and p- pricing and let each go its own way. We abandoned it because 1) We could not come up with a good idea how to price the electronic product, [and] 2) We needed a transition from old to new without (financial) disruption to end users, librarians or ourselves.”

The financial disruption publishers feared above all no doubt was the likelihood that their revenues would fall if they moved to e-pricing. Unsurprisingly, once the honeymoon period ended, librarians became increasingly disenchanted with the Big Deal. It did not help that they could see that while they were scrimping and saving to pay their bills, publishers were enjoying healthy (many felt excessive) profits.

“[T]he historical prices baked into the big deals were high to begin with,” says Anderson, so it did not help to see publishers consistently reported “enormous profits in their journal division.” Librarians felt they were having their noses rubbed in their predicament.

Over time other gripes emerged too. The fact that publishers expected libraries to pay in advance, for instance, became a significant bone of contention. “In effect,” says Shorley, “this means that we give publishers substantial interest-free loans. It’s like paying a restaurant for a meal before you eat it.”

It also has not helped that there has been a growing realization that many of the journals included in Big Deal bundles are rarely accessed. Why pay for something researchers don’t use, librarians began to wonder.

Publishers sought to deflect criticism of the Big Deal by stressing unit costs. This was logical: With more and more papers published each year and constant consolidation in the industry, publishers were assembling ever-larger journal bundles. As a result, the number of articles in a typical Big Deal was growing on a constant basis, which inevitably increased the number of papers downloaded. So publishers were able to argue that the Big Deal was driving prices down, not up.

When he appeared before the U.K. Science & Technology Select Committee during its inquiry into scientific publishing in 2004, then-CEO of Reed Elsevier Crispin Davies responded to politicians’ jibes about the company’s profits by arguing that per-article prices were falling by between 50% and 80% per annum. Therefore, he suggested, the research community was getting more bang for its bucks every year.

“To give you an actual number on that,” he told British politicians, “five years ago the cost per article download was over eight pounds. In 2003, the cost per article download averaged £1.69. We think this it will go down below a pound.” And no doubt it has continued to fall since then.

But librarians don’t need a publisher to tell them this. Don King, a research professor at the University of Pittsburgh, tells a similar story. Between 2004 and 2008, King undertook a study to compare the use, value and return-on-investment of print and electronic journal collections—looking specifically at the situation at the University of Pittsburgh.

King’s study estimated that there were 933,200 readings from the university’s Big Deal collections, compared with 129,980 readings from the current periodicals collection and 238,020 readings from the university’s print back files. Per unique title, therefore, the number of readings was 109 for the Big Deal, compared to 39 for print.

Importantly, King found that while the cost-per-unique title for print journals was $582, it was $324 with the Big Deal. Likewise, cost-per-reading was $14.88 with print compared to $2.97 with the Big Deal.

King says that the “cost of these collections was $2,774,000 for the electronic collection, $1,765,000 for current periodicals, and $3,710,000 for the print back files. Examined from the perspective of a 25-year life cycle, the electronic collection was $2,381,000 versus $5,515,000 for print journals.”

In fact, librarians have never denied that the Big Deal increases usage and lowers per-article costs. Says Anderson, “It has to be acknowledged that the large publisher journal licenses have expanded access and lowered the unit cost of much journal content relative to what the cost of those journals might have been without those deals, particularly when publishers have been willing to cap price increases in exchange for multi-year revenue guarantees.” However, she points out that the problem is that lower per-unit costs do little to help librarians grapple with the more fundamental affordability problem confronting them.

Squaring the Circle

To understand this problem, Anderson wrote on the liblicense mailing list earlier this year that one has simply to juxtapose two well-known charts, “ one from ARL documenting the long decline in the proportion of research university funding allocated towards libraries, and another reproduced by STM documenting the equally steady increase in journal publication over time. These trends have long been on a collision course.”

Add to this the “all-or-nothing” nature of the Big Deal and one can clearly see why the situation has become untenable for librarians. “My message to publishers today is simply this,” says Shorley. “‘What you offer us is a Rolls Royce. In the old days we could afford a Rolls Royce, but now we can’t, so I want a Volkswagen. You, however, are preventing me from buying a Volkswagen; you are saying that I must take a Rolls Royce or nothing’.”

Shorley adds, “If one thinks of the essence of the housing market being location, location, location, the serials problem for us is all about costs, costs, costs. Not prices, but costs. Each year publishers ask us for more money, and every year we find ourselves locked into spending more and more on the Big Deal. We simply cannot afford it anymore.”

Moreover, if libraries were to discontinue their Big Deals and return to title-by-title purchasing, Shorley adds, they would find that unit costs had risen again, and so they were paying the same price for fewer journals.

Of course, this is logical since publishers view the Big Deal as a volume discount sale. But in practice, it means that if a library spending perhaps 1 million pounds on its Big Deal decides to move to a title-by-title arrangement the bill for the same number of titles can be expected to rise to about £1.2 million.

Meanwhile, publishers continue to make very attractive profits from scholarly publishing. Elsevier, for instance, routinely reports profits of 30%-plus. In May, The Economist reported that, despite the recession, the company made £724m ($1.1 billion) on revenues of £2 billion last year, an operating-profit margin of 36%.

But despite all the noise, claims, counterclaims, and rising anger over the Big Deal, one thing is incontrovertible: Library budgets are under constant pressure, while the cost of scholarly communication is rising year-on-year. How can this circle be squared?

For their part, publishers rightly point out that if the scholarly publishing system is to continue functioning (in its current form at least), they have to be paid for the services they provide. Speaking to me last year, Derk Haank, CEO of Springer, pointed out that journals are currently growing in volume by 6% to 7% per year. As a consequence, he said prices must inevitably go up.

“We have been doing all that is possible over the last couple of years, and will continue to do so to ensure that our price increases are lower than the volume increases. But not increasing our prices is not an option in the long term,” he said.

One can argue about the level of profits publishers ought to be making from the public purse, but Haank’s general point is hard to gainsay. He added, “I agree that there was once a serial pricing problem. I have never denied there was a problem. But it was the Big Deal that solved it.” For that reason, he suggested, “The Big Deal is the best invention since sliced bread.”

Haank’s reasoning is that the Big Deal provides librarians with the maximum amount of content for their finite subscription dollars. Consequently, he concludes, “[I]t is in the interests of everyone—publishers and librarians—to keep the Big Deal going.”

Rick Anderson, associate director for scholarly resources and collections at the University of Utah’s J.Wilard Marriott Library, disagrees. He says that all the Big Deal did was to put off the day of reckoning. As he expressed it on The Scholarly Kitchen, “The Big Deal was not (pace Derk Haank) a solution to the serials pricing crisis—it was only a way of kicking the can of unsustainable pricing down the road for a few years.”

In the meantime, the price of scholarly journals continues to rise. As Library Journal reported earlier this year, “prices are still rising, and rising more quickly than other types of publications.” The overall price increases for general periodicals, it added are “trending in the five to seven per cent range and academic titles in the seven to nine per cent range.”

It concluded that “[w]ith library budgets in decline this range of increases will be just as damaging as the serials price increases seen at the peak of the ‘serials crisis’ in the 1990s, before the Big Deal became common. During that time, serials prices increased 10.8 per cent in 1995, 9.9 per cent in 1996 and 10.3 per cent in 1997, eventually reaching 10.4 per cent in 1998.”

In other words, while the Big Deal may have appeared to solve the serials crisis, all it really did was provide a temporary fix. It has failed to address the larger affordability problem. As Shorley points out, it reduced the price of journals but not the cost of scholarly communication.

Consequently, 15 years after the Big Deal was introduced, librarians find themselves back where they were in 1996. Only this time, the situation is worse because when they try to cancel journals in response to a reduced budget today, they find their hands are tied.

Cancellations

But when there really is no more money, cancellation is the only option left. In its 2011 Library Collections and Budgeting Trends Survey, EBSCO Information Services reported that 34% of about 450 respondents were making budget cuts for 2011, and 44% expected cuts for the next fiscal year.

More significantly, nearly 40% of respondents indicated that they were likely to break up e-packages in favor of individually renewing only those ejournals most frequently accessed. That is, they expected not to renew Big Deals.

However, Haank argues that most cancellation threats that librarians make are simply intended to extract better deals from publishers. As he told me last year, librarians see it as “all part of the process of negotiating with publishers.” In fact, he says that when push comes to shove the money to pay for journals is invariably found, because people realize “that scientists have to have sufficient funding to keep abreast of new developments.”

Consequently, he believes that most of the hot air and public grandstanding by librarians is just that—hot air. He told me that the truth is, “there have been no massive cancellations.”

Journals are nevertheless being canceled. In its 2010 Study of Subscription Prices for Scholarly Society Journals, for instance, Allen Press included a list of universities that made “significant institutional subscription cancellations” during the year, including Georgia Tech, the University of California, San Francisco, Oregon State University, and the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

More significantly, in January 2010, the University of Washington (UW) announced that it was closing a number of libraries. In the process, it said it was canceling an estimated 2,800 journals and planned to buy at least 7,000 fewer books during the year.

Pointing out that reducing subscriptions to some publishers’ journals is very difficult because bundling “makes it impossible to cancel them without sacrificing access to dozens or even hundreds of others,” the UW press release added that it had nevertheless had no choice but to do this. Specifically, it said, “access to some 1,200 titles from prominent journal publisher Springer will be lost because the UW and other libraries in the region that shared the group contract lack the funding to maintain it.”

It may be that few libraries are making massive cancellations today. But the likelihood is that at some point that is what we will see. Moreover, as a result of the global financial crisis observers expect that this will be sooner rather than later because library budgets are now experiencing big cuts, not just relative decline.

Speaking to me in March, Claudio Aspesi, an analyst at the sell-side research firm Sanford Bernstein, said: “There are three trends overlapping: a long term unsustainable trend, a cyclical funding crisis and a more tough minded and analytical community of librarians. Overlay to the funding crisis the realisation that Big Deals forced librarians to take journals that nobody (or almost nobody) really accessed and you set up a perfect storm.”

As a portent of the future perhaps, The Chronicle of Higher Education reported in July that both the University of Oregon and Southern Illinois University have decided to cancel Big Deals and move to per-title subscriptions. If Aspesi is right, what alternative is there to the current arrangements?

Shuffle the Pack

One alternative mooted by librarians is for publishers to take the step that AP shied away from when it introduced the Big Deal in the first place: move to e-pricing.

This would see the Big Deal survive but using a different pricing formula. The underlying assumption appears to be that any e-pricing arrangement would be based on the lower unit prices that publishers boast about when defending the Big Deal.

For instance, writing on Liblicense in February, Anderson said: “[T]he unit price gains of the big deal—which Derk Haank rightly noted as representing a correction to the pricing excesses of an earlier era—constitute a new normal, and not some special pricing that only obtains if the deal remains intact.” This model would also seem to imply that librarians would again be able to pick and mix journals in the way they used to do prior to the Big Deal.

However, it must be doubted that either of these changes would be acceptable to publishers, since the first would inevitably mean lower revenues, and the second would resurrect the bogeyman of the cancellation spiral that led AP to introduce the Big Deal in the first place. Others argue that a more viable alternative is for publishers to migrate to Open Access (OA) publishing, moving from a subscription-based system to one in which authors paid a publication fee, or “article processing charge.”

“The development of open access models has, I feel, made going back to the original idea of the Big Deal as an infrastructural provision pretty much irrelevant,” says Velterop. “Open access goes further, avoids difficulties of top-slicing (i.e. of decisions on a higher level without the say of individual librarians), and puts the economic onus where it belongs, on the primary beneficiary, the author.”

But the problem with OA is that there is no convincing evidence that it will prove any less expensive than subscription publishing, since OA simply shifts the costs from the end of the process to the beginning. Indeed, there are reasons to believe that OA may prove more costly than subscription publishing.

In fact, none of the currently proposed alternatives appears to offer a solution to the affordability problem at the heart of the crisis afflicting scholarly communication today. As with the Big Deal before them, they would merely shuffle the cards so far as costs are concerned, when what appears to be needed is a totally new pack of cards.

Given the apparent absence of a viable alternative, Haank’s belief that the Big Deal remains the best solution is rational. And most publishers appear to agree with him. They also believe that libraries’ historic print spend remains the best pricing formula.

“There are benefits in basing the price of the package on historic spend,” says Bannerman. “It makes the model more predictable, sustainable and fair than alternatives that focus on usage, FTE etc.”

In support of his claim, Bannerman says that Taylor & Frances discussed the idea of moving away from historical print spend as the basis for pricing with some of its customers only to find the proposal was not widely favore d. “ While the Big Deal is not perfect, most radical attempts to re-base the price have foundered because new formulae create winners and losers,” he says. Consequently, he adds, “the only customers that are keen on an alternative model are those that would end up paying less.”

Big Deals Must Be Good Deals

Whatever disaffected librarians may say, McCulloch agrees that the Big Deal still makes sense. “The fact that librarians are still signing up for the Big Deal demonstrates that it works,” she says. “Many librarians acknowledge the transformative impact that the Big Deal has had on the number of journal titles that they can provide access to, and this was evident in comments made by librarians responding to an ALPSP survey in 2009. The same survey showed that the popularity of Big Deals was continuing to increase as evidenced by the increase in the average number of Big Deals taken.”

There is no doubt that some librarians remain happy with the Big Deal. On Liblicense in January, for instance, Warren Holder, electronic resources co-ordinator at University of Toronto Libraries, said, “I am a librarian who has been involved with the licensing of e-resources for over 14 years and I agree with Derk Haank [that the Big Deal is the “best invention since sliced bread”].

A similar comment was made by Kathy Strube, director of Aurora Libraries at Aurora Health Care, in June. “I still use … [big deals] … am happy with them, and feel I’ve negotiated good prices for my consortia of a dozen not-for-profit health care systems,” she wrote. Nonetheless, the number of librarians who still like the Big Deal appears to be small and getting smaller.

It is also clear that some publishers have a jaundiced view of the Big Deal. For instance, NPG’s Hoole is no fan. He believes that NPG’s approach is both fairer and more viable. “NPG only publishes 90 journals, so we don’t sell big deals in the traditional sense,” he says. “We do offer (and have always offered) package and volume discounts that reward customers for committing to more titles, but we operate a fundamentally a-la-carte, buy-only-what-you-need model.” Hoole adds: “NPG always offered volume discounts, without the multi-year commitment. So maybe that is an alternative [to the Big Deal]”

But while NPG’s approach may be more flexible, it is not at all clear that librarians are any happier with its pricing. Indeed, NPG has been heavily criticized for this. When last year it tried to increase the cost of the University of California’s site license by 400%, for example, UC threatened to cancel its NPG titles and was ready  to encourage other institutions to do so as well. Once again, we have to conclude that none of the alternatives to the Big Deal proposed so far seems to promise a solution to the fundamental affordability problem confronting librarians.

However, faced with growing librarian discontent, publishers tend to conclude that they are simply being unreasonable or contrary. “No one is holding a gun to the heads of librarians; they are smart people making purchasing decisions on financial realities,” says McCulloch. “They know that the cost per title and cost per download of material in Big Deals make them excellent value for money. No matter what people think about the Big Deal, librarians are spending their precious acquisition budgets on them and that tells me that Big Deals must be Good Deals.”

“Librarians need to accept that if they want access to a continually growing database, then costs will need to go up a little bit,” says Haank. “We try to accommodate our customers, but at a certain point, we will hit a wall.”

Face-Off

But librarians can hit walls too and, as we saw, some already have. Many are simply no longer able to pay publishers’ asking prices. And nowhere is this discontent more evident right now than in the U.K., where the Big Deal first saw the light of day. Frustrated by the insupportable cost of the Big Deals and angry at what they see as publisher recalcitrance, U.K. librarians have decided that enough is enough.

Two years ago, Research Libraries UK (RLUK), which represents the so-called Russell Group of universities, and whose membership consists of 30 major institutions, including Oxford, Cambridge, and Manchester universities, Imperial College, the London School of Economics, and The British Library, made a decision .

With its Big Deal contracts with both Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell due for renewal in January 2012, RLUK instructed JISC Collections (which acts on its behalf in content licensing matters) to take a firm line in renewal negotiations.

Specifically, RLUK is insisting that in future its member institutions are billed in sterling rather than euros, that the bills are staged rather demanded upfront and—most striking of all—that prices are rolled back to where they were in 2007 (with an allowance for RPI). In practice, says Shorley (who is chair of the RLUK group leading the revolt), this would effectively amount to a 15% reduction in current prices.

RLUK has also made it clear that it wants an agreement with both publishers in place by Sept. 30, and if it doesn’t get what it wants, it will walk away from these publishers’ Big Deals. As proof of its determination, RLUK is drawing up a Plan B. This would involve buying key journals on a title-by-title basis and relying for the rest on document supply and interlibrary loans.

Since it is estimated that 5% of journals account for 40% of journal subscription use and that at least 10% of papers are now available on an OA basis, RLUK believes Plan B offers a viable alternative to the Big Deal. So long as it delivers what the researchers need and costs no more than member institutions pay under the current Big Deal contracts, then it will be considered a satisfactory outcome by RLUK, says Shorley.

RLUK believes that its strategy has the potential to break the library community’s chains and free it from the prisoner’s dilemma outlined by Frazier a decade ago. And the only way to achieve this, it has concluded, is by forcing a face-off with publishers.

With vice chancellors at member institutions signed up to the plan, RLUK is confident that it can succeed. It helps that the pain of withdrawal for researchers will be gradual, since all RLUK member universities will have print and/or electronic back files of everything they purchased under previous Big Deals.

“Come January 1st it will mostly be the new stuff we don’t have; so it will be an incremental problem,” says Shorley, whose mantra is “short term pain is long term gain.”

Shorley adds, “I don’t understand why publishers won’t listen when they are told that libraries can’t afford the Big Deal anymore. I can only think it is because we have been crying wolf about this for so long.” But this time, she insists that they are deadly serious.

What do Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell make of RLUK demands? We don’t know. Elsevier declined to answer any questions on the Big Deal for this article. And Wiley-Blackwell would only provide a boilerplate statement in response: “We work closely with our customers and place great value on the long term relationships we build with them,” Wiley-Blackwell’s statement reads. “It has been Wiley’s position since we began licensing online products that we would adopt flexible pricing and licensing policies and our current models for Wiley Online Library reflect this. We offer several variations on ‘the Big Deal’ model which many customers like and take advantage of. We also know that, especially in challenging economic times, customer needs and priorities vary and there is no quick fix or single formula that will work for all.” The statement concludes: “We are committed to working with customers to find the mutually satisfactory solutions that enable customers to have access to as much content as possible within the constraints of their budgets.”

But U.K. librarians are looking for more than statements of goodwill today. They want lower prices. And to this end, they have raised the stakes in what is to all intents and purposes now a game of poker. But will publishers call their bluff?

McCulloch is skeptical that publishers will give way over pricing. “I think that calls from some librarians and library groups for a large decrease in spend without a large decrease in access to content are unrealistic,” she says.

Only time will tell. But Aspesi is right when he argues that librarians have become more tough-minded. “One of the things that appalls me is how supine we have been,” says Shorley. “For the past 20 odd years we have prepared annual budgets. Each year we have said: ‘What should we allow for the increase in journal prices?’ Then we would just increase the budget by whatever the SWETS forecast predicted.” RLUK’s strategy would appear to be the biggest challenge to the status quo for 15 years. But is it a potential game-changer?

New Proposal

Let’s put the question another way: If it succeeds in its objective, what will RLUK have achieved? If the fundamental problem faced by the research community is long-term affordability then how can a temporary price reduction resolve the deeper problem? After all, prices will doubtless creep back up again. And librarians will still be handcuffed to an inflexible system.

It is striking that most discussion about the Big Deal too often fails to examine the underlying questions raised by the serials crisis. Questions such as: Can the research community still afford the scholarly communication system it has inherited, or has the cost become too great? And even if the traditional system is still theoretically affordable, could it be that those who ultimately pay for it (universities, research funders, governments, and ultimately taxpayers) are no longer willing to foot the bill as the costs go higher and higher?

The signs are that the answer to both questions is no. If that is right, then RLUK’s strategy can surely only provide short-term relief. Is there no way out of the impasse?

Actually, the answer may be staring us in the face. And since the Big Deal was born in the U.K. and one of its principle midwives was HEFCE, who better to point the way than HEFCE’s director of research, innovation, and skills David Sweeney ?

While stressing that HEFCE funds universities rather than research groups or individual academics (and so it is up to universities to allocate funds and resolve any pricing issues with publishers), Sweeney is quite clear that, as a government funder, HEFCE does not accept that access to research is so important that the money will always be found.

“At the heart of the issue is Derk Haank’s statement that the number of published papers continues to grow at around 6% per annum,” says Sweeney. “That reflects both academics wanting to publish their material (understandably) but also journal publishers accepting papers and increasing the number of journals or the size of journals.”

Sweeney adds that it is therefore not obvious to HEFCE “that a constraint on the volume of material published through the current scholarly system would be a bad thing and that is why, in our research assessment system [REF], we only look at up to four outputs per academic.” [This appears to imply less than one output a year.]

Here then is an interesting new proposal: The solution to the serials crisis lies not in continuing to throw money at publishers or even haggling with them over pricing, but for the research community to publish fewer papers. This, says Sweeney, is the way to resolve the affordability problem.

Strikingly, some researchers appear to agree with Sweeney. “There is tremendous redundancy in the system,” says David Williams, a professor at the University of Liverpool. “This means that even the worst scientific papers can find a home somewhere.” In other words, the problem is not a shortage of money but a surfeit of papers. “Obviously academics are as much to blame as publishers for this,” says Williams, but “rarely are journals closed down, even those that are horrendously bad because they still provide some limited profit.” Williams’ view is all the more striking coming as it does from the editor-in-chief of an Elsevier journal (Biomaterials).

Of course, there is absolutely no financial incentive for publishers to restrict the number of papers published; quite the contrary. And researchers are unlikely to do so voluntarily. If Sweeney is correct, therefore, the onus would seem to be on librarians since it is they who buy the products of publishers. Their aim therefore should not be to drive journal growth by subscribing to ever larger, ever more expensive journal bundles but to start cancelling subscriptions.

“If universities cannot afford to buy the journals then publishers will stop producing so much and, at a cost of less published material, the circle will be squared,” says Sweeney.

Sweeney’s argument also suggests that librarians should cease advocating for and supporting Gold OA funds, and the various institutional membership schemes operated by OA publishers. After all, in doing so, they are encouraging the growth of a new generation of journals and fuelling a new explosion in papers. And supporting OA journals is all the more nonsensical given that OA can be achieved at no additional cost by means of self-archiving.

Broader Debate Needed

However, Shorley hopes that RLUK’s Plan B will not be necessary. “As long as we can afford them it is much better for us in every way to go for Big Deals, and it is much easier administratively for the publishers,” she explains. “Researchers also like them best. Bu t unless prices fall substantially—and I don’t just mean don’t increase—we shall have to walk away from the big deals with the big publishers, and resort to title-by-title subscriptions, supplemented by document supply and, of course, wherever possible, open access.”

But if Sweeney is correct, then Plan B is a better option than continuing to support the Big Deal, even if RLUK gets the 15% reduction in prices it wants. Moreover, it is clearly easier to cancel Big Deals than persuade publishers to lower their prices, as U.S. universities are discovering. Importantly, doing so is more likely to solve the long-term affordability problem.

Of course, librarians may fear that if they cancel subscriptions (and so presumably threaten the survival of some journals), researchers will accuse them not only of restricting access and hindering the advancement of science, but of threatening their careers (since evaluation for tenure and promotion is based on publication record). That might be so, but it simply tells us that vice chancellors and other university administrators need to play their part in this too.

After all, the constant growth in papers is being driven primarily by the need for researchers to meet the increasingly onerous tenure and promotion requirements set by universities; requirements that too often mistake quantity for quality.

Not so many years ago, it was widely predicted that the internet would significantly reduce the cost of scholarly publishing. Instead, prices have continued to rise. This is not just a consequence of the explosion in papers (although, as we shall see, it is directly connected), but because scholarly publishing has failed to fully exploit the web.

Again, Sweeney has a solution. In the age of the internet, he argues that not all research needs to be published in the traditional manner. “The amount of research deserving publication ‘for the record’ is much less than the amount deserving publication ‘for immediate debate within the community’ and whereas print journals have met both needs in the past the internet offers the prospect of decoupling the two, leading to a drop in the amount of material requiring/meriting the full peer review and professional editing service.”

He adds, “I think there is a question about the point of publishing material using the full panoply of quality-assured journal publication. Our view is that we should look at research quality as an issue of excellence rather than an issue of volume of publications. I can't speak for the [UK] Research Councils on this but, for us, one publication which is ground-breaking and world-leading is worth more than any number of publications which would be recognised internationally but not as excellent or as world-leading.

And Sweeney concludes, “We would certainly want debate and discussion around a broader range of material but that can happen (and does happen in some disciplines) without the cost and time of full peer-reviewed publication. Given the very explicit problem with cost we would encourage broader debate on this issue.”

And that’s the point: Today, universities encourage researchers to publish as many peer-reviewed articles as possible, and the Big Deal (and its insupportable costs) is the logical consequence of such a policy.

But in today’s electronic environment, such a model is not only too expensive, but it is too slow and too wasteful. Like the two-for-the-price-of-one deals offered by supermarkets, it encourages overconsumption (or more precisely, overproduction). And thus as with the second pack of tomatoes that consumers end up throwing away, many papers are not even opened today, let alone consumed.

U.K. librarians should by all means put their cards on the table and demand that publishers show their hand. But if, as Shorley maintains, the core issue is not price but cost, then getting publishers to temporarily dial back the Big Deal will not address the real challenge confronting the research community: The challenge is not the price of journals or the price of Big Deals; it is the cost of maintaining a scholarly publishing system that is now past its sell-by date.


A shorter version of this interview with charts and graphics (The Big Deal: It’s All About Cost), appears in the September print issue of Information Today. Richard Poynder, a freelance journalist based in the U.K., writes about information technology, telecommunications, and intellectual property with a special emphasis on online services and open access issues.

Barbara Brynko
is Editor-in-Chief of
Information Today. Send your comments about this article to itletters@infotoday.com.

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