A Big Deal Update

This Open@VT blogpost is part of an ongoing series on Virginia Tech’s pending negotiations with the scholarly publishing giant Elsevier. Virginia Tech is one of seven research universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia that negotiates collectively with Elsevier and other large publishers to license access to thousands of scholarly journals through what are commonly called “big deals.” (The other schools are George Mason University, James Madison University, Old Dominion University, University of Virginia, Virginia Commonwealth University, and College of William and Mary.) The current big deal agreement with Elsevier is set to expire at the end of 2021. As this deadline approaches, we are eager to engage the VT community in a conversation about the best path forward.

Two men standing, backs turned, at a reading table in a medieval library
University of Leiden Library, 1610 (Public Domain image)

More than a year has passed since the University of California terminated its multi-million-dollar bundled journal subscription agreement with Elsevier. The news was startling at the time, even more so given the size and importance of the UC system to Elsevier and to scientific research in general. So it is perhaps just as startling that the stalemate has continued, with no immediate signs of a resolution on the horizon. This post provides a brief update on the UC-Elsevier situation and then points to related developments elsewhere that, taken together, shed light on where big deal negotiations in general are headed.  

After negotiations between UC and Elsevier broke down in February, it wasn’t until July that Elsevier officially cut off UC’s access to new journal content on the ScienceDirect platform. Since then, UC has been working to ensure that faculty and students have alternative means of access to this new journal content.

The next move came in August when a group of prominent UC faculty pledged to step down from the editorial boards of Elsevier journals until the publisher agreed to return to the negotiating table. This, however, appears not to have had its desired effect. According to the UC Office of Scholarly Communication website, the parties have only engaged in “informal conversations” through the end of 2019. And while there were plans to “explore reopening negotiations” during the first quarter of 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak may very well have disrupted those plans.

Meanwhile, neither UC nor Elsevier has been waiting passively on the sidelines. Far from it.

In California the UC system has successfully negotiated open access publishing deals with several other scholarly publishers including Cambridge University Press, PLOS, and ACM. These deals all incorporate key elements of what UC is seeking from Elsevier. That is, they do more than simply curb the rising costs of journal subscriptions. They support, in one form or another, open access publishing for UC authors. This cost-access nexus makes them “transformative” agreements.

For its part, Elsevier has been negotiating new license agreements with institutions and consortia both here and in Europe. In some of these agreements institutions are opting out of big deals, replacing their existing bundled journals packages with smaller, a la carte journals packages targeted to the specific needs of their campuses. 

For instance, earlier this month the State University of New York Libraries Consortium and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill announced their decisions not to renew their big deals with Elsevier, making them part of a growing list of institutions opting out of big deals. (An up-to-date list can be found here.)

According to SUNY’s April 7 announcement, “While both parties negotiated in earnest and tried to come to acceptable terms for SUNY to maintain access to the full ScienceDirect package, in the end there was considerable disagreement around the value proposition of the ‘big deal.’” 

UNC Library tweets, 4 April 2020

The calculus was similar for UNC, which announced its decision on April 9. “I tried to work with Elsevier but we had no choice but to break our big deal,” tweeted University Librarian Elaine Westbrooks. “We are free to select what titles we want. No more ‘cable packages’ of journals that we don’t read or value.”

The virtue of replacing a “cable package” with an a la carte package is that it addresses the immediate problem of exponential cost increases. SUNY expects to save as much as $7 million from the $10 million it currently spends annually. UNC expects to save approximately $1 million from the current $2.6 million deal. On the other hand, Elsevier’s pricing structure is such that institutions are paying significantly more money per title, which means fewer titles. The full ScienceDirect package contains over 2,500 journals, but SUNY is subscribing to only 248. For UNC, the number is 395.

Few if any librarians would argue that such an agreement is a long-term solution to the problem posed by the big deal. One might even call these “little deals” because, although they address the immediate problem of escalating costs, they fail to deal with what most would agree is the bigger and more entrenched problem––that of opening access to a growing body of scholarly research that currently sits behind a paywall. In short, they are not transformative.

Meanwhile, Elsevier has been doing much more than just signing smaller subscription agreements with schools such as SUNY and UNC. They are, in fact, piloting new subscription agreement models that are, at least in part, transformative in that they combine subscriptions and open-access publishing fees into one price. Such agreements are now in place in Sweden and Ireland. Here in the US, at least two universities have reached transformative agreements with Elsevier: Carnegie Mellon University and, perhaps surprisingly, Cal State University

Under the terms of the Carnegie Mellon agreement, which became effective Jan. 1, 2020, CMU is no longer paying separately to access Elsevier’s catalog of paywalled content and to publish open-access articles in Elsevier journals. Carnegie Mellon scholars will have access to all Elsevier academic journals, and all articles with a corresponding CMU author published through Elsevier also will be open access.

According to the Cal State announcement, its agreement “offers excellent content for a fair price, purposefully equalizes access across all 23 campuses, and sets the stage for the CSU faculty to more fully engage in Open Access publishing in ways that make sense for them and their fields of research.”

Unfortunately, only certain details of these agreements are made public, and the devil is in the details. For instance, a price might seem fair at the outset but if the amount of money Elsevier collects depends on the number of faculty that publish in Elsevier journals, cost containment will continue to be a problem for libraries, which again will be caught in the big deal bind of uncontrollable cost increases.

Nevertheless, it is significant that Elsevier has changed its position somewhat over the course of the past year and is now willing to accept transformative agreements in principle. This, of course, is what UC has been asking for all along, so let’s hope that a resolution to the UC-Elsevier stalemate is coming soon. 

Finally, let me offer a few takeaways from these developments:

  1. After years of threatening to step away from the big deal, libraries are now actually doing it. And they are finding seemingly palatable ways to replace bundled packages with much smaller, a-la-carte packages—even if it means paying significantly more money per title. In short, this option is on the table when it comes time for Virginia’s schools to negotiate with Elsevier.
  2. Libraries are successfully engaging their campuses in these decisions rather than going it alone. At SUNY and UNC, the final list of titles was arrived at through faculty and librarian consultations, together with analytics gathered from tools such as Unpaywall. As a result, all indications are that campus support is high. See, for instance, the responses from UNC faculty on the UNC Library twitter feed. (And, of course, at UC the negotiating team was remarkably inclusive, bringing together members of the Academic (faculty) Senate, the UC (campus) Libraries, and the California Digital Library.) Here in Virginia, we are committed to this same level of engagement.  
  3. The more one digs into the data, the less of a “good deal” big deals prove to be. The fact that libraries are able to drop so many titles from their subscription packages and still retain faculty support tells us something significant about how many of the titles in these packages are truly indispensable. As an illustration, here at Virginia Tech our statistics show that 40% of Elsevier titles get 50 or fewer downloads per year.
  4. There is no roadmap yet for institutions to follow in negotiations with Elsevier. Agreeing to a smaller subscription package is not a long-term solution. And while Elsevier may have budged somewhat in its stance on transformative agreements, the publisher has proved again and again that it knows how to maintain its profit margin in any deal it makes. In short, it seems unlikely that Elsevier’s idea of a transformative agreement will look anything like what higher ed institutions have in mind. 
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About Peter Potter

Peter Potter is Publishing Director in the University Libraries at Virginia Tech. In 2016 he launched Virginia Tech Publishing, a digital-first, open-access publisher that also offers consulting, education, and outreach to members of the Virginia Tech community as they navigate the changing landscape of scholarly publishing.
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