‘Big deals’ straining academic library budgets

Canadian academic libraries are increasingly challenged to maintain strong collections while grappling with unfavourable currency exchange rates, yearly subscription increases and a ‘big deal’ that is not necessarily a good deal. Despite this publishing environment, academic libraries, including Western Libraries, are developing their own strategies to maintain high-quality collections in the face of publishers’ strategies to maintain high-profit margins.

During times when the U.S.-to-Canadian dollar exchange is unfavourable, an overarching challenge for all Canadian academic libraries is the majority of library resources are purchased in U.S. dollars. As we saw in the early 2000s, and again in 2015, when the loonie drops in value, libraries are left scrambling to strategize how to address acquisition budget deficits. When a large portion of our budget is committed to maintaining subscriptions to large packages (bundles) of journals, the libraries’ options for reducing spending in order to manage our budget are severely limited.

So what’s the ‘big deal’?

Bundling not only happens with your cable package, it is also a key academic publishing strategy. However, just as Kenneth Frazier predicted in 2001, this approach has backed academic libraries into a corner.

At first glance, the ‘big deal’ appeared to be a good deal, enabling academic libraries to increase the scope of their collections at an affordable price. Why pay X amount of dollars for one journal when you can pay a little more for five journals?

However, analogous to your cable bill, libraries end up subscribing to hundreds of low-value journals to get a few key titles. After purchasing these bundles for several years, libraries are now evaluating these journal packages and the evidence is telling. Library users seek out the highly ranked journals extensively while not using the lower-ranked titles.

Why do publishers bundle? It’s about consolidation and money.

In June 2017, The Guardian published an article outlining the evolution of scientific publishing to the highly profitable business it is today. At the centre was Robert Maxwell, who saw an opportunity to make money in scientific publishing. His strategies included convincing researchers in specialized scientific fields they needed their own scientific journals to publish their research, while he simultaneously took over scientific society publications.

Over the years, smaller publishers and society publishers have been acquired by the bigger players. Today, five publishers – Elsevier, Wiley, Springer, Taylor & Francis and SAGE – distribute more than half of all academic papers.

Coupled with consolidation is the annual price increase. EBSCO reports that the average annual increase for journals has been 6 per cent for several years. Regardless if it’s an individual journal title or journal package, annual increases present a significant challenge for academic library acquisitions budgets, which are often marginally increased, flat or reduced.

For the past 15 or so years, most research-intensive Canadian academic libraries have purchased bundled packages through national or provincial library consortiums, holding price increases to lower levels. However, libraries now face a dilemma – publishers have increased their list prices just enough to eliminate cost-savings if we cancel the ‘big deal’ and re-purchase essential individual titles, while simultaneously consolidating and increasing costs of the ‘big deal’ packages we therefore must purchase.

What is Western Libraries’ approach?

Western Libraries’ strategy to evaluate and rationalize our journal collection includes development of an essential list of titles required by Western students and researchers. This list will be developed through analysis of use, citations and faculty mentions. We hope to have it ready by early 2018.

In addition to work we are undertaking locally, we are also participating in a national project through the Canadian Research Knowledge Network which will help us identify these essential titles. This list will allow us to determine the feasibility of realizing savings by moving away from the big deals while still providing access to the articles required by our researchers.

These savings can then be used to ensure continued access to these essential journals and possibly applied to new resources which support the academic and research missions of the university.

How have others approached the problem?

On the international stage, Finnish scholars have recently begun to boycott reviewing articles for publishers who refuse to offer their local consortiums fair prices. (More information can be found on nodealnoreview.org.)

Locally, the Canadian Association of Research Libraries (CARL) released a report on July 4, that “presents a model framework for setting Canadian scholarly publishing on a path towards sustainability.” The report acknowledges the role scholarly publishing plays “as a significant currency in the market of tenure, promotion, and research grants” and this role may need to evolve to enable changes which will make the scholarly publishing infrastructure sustainable.

The key to both above initiatives is stakeholder engagement.

Overall, the days of subscribing to large journal packages for exorbitant prices may soon be coming to a close.

Academic libraries, the largest customers of academic journals, cannot keep up with journal package subscription increases. Locally, nationally and globally, libraries are investigating ways to provide a path forward for future access to scholarly publishing with the goal of creating a sustainable structure which supports research dissemination.

In order to achieve this goal, support and involvement of university administration, faculty and students will be required to find a resolution for the dissemination of scholarly publishing in a fiscally responsible and manageable way.

Samuel Cassady is the Digital Information Resources Librarian, Library Information Resources Management. Kelly Hatch is Acting Director at the C.B. ‘Bud’ Johnston Library. Harriet Rykse is Association Chief Librarian.