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VCU librarians monitor cancellations of academic publishers’ “big deals” due to mounting costs

May 3, 2018

In a move that Virginia research libraries are monitoring closely, Florida State University Libraries announced last month that it will cancel its comprehensive Elsevier “big deal” package of scholarly journals. Elsevier is an international scholarly publishing house that produces many journals, ebooks, and academic database products particularly important to scientific research.

According to FSU’s Dean of Libraries Julia Zimmerman, “the exceptionally high and ever-increasing cost of the Elsevier ‘big deal’ has made it unsustainable.” This decision to cancel the deal was unanimously endorsed by the FSU Faculty Senate and supported by the provost.

Florida State’s conundrum about how to deal with pricey academic publishers is shared by many research libraries. Journal “big deals” resemble cable or satellite TV packages in which the consumer’s choice is limited: The consumer cannot choose specific channels but must buy bundles of programs. Similarly, libraries often contract for bundles of journals to get specific journals their community needs, and moreover, the prices for these bundles increase every year. According to VCU University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider, “many academic libraries are reconsidering their big deals in light of growing costs, declining benefits, and gigantic publisher profit margins. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC),  an open access advocacy group of which VCU is a member, maintains a Big Deal Cancellation database that documents these changes. It is a growing list, as more libraries are opting out of these deals.

Like other university libraries that have cancelled “big deal” packages, FSU Libraries plan to continue individual subscriptions to the most highly used Elsevier titles and rely on other means such as interlibrary loan and document delivery to provide timely access to those titles that will no longer be part of their ongoing subscription. With federal and international open access funding mandates, versions of much of the journal literature from these expensive packages is now freely available. Tools such as Unpaywall and OA Button are designed to easily connect researchers to these legal, free open access versions. Researchers are also able to self-archive their scholarship so that it is free to read through institutional repositories such as the VCU Scholars Compass.

Virginia research libraries negotiate collectively to obtain journal bundles from publishers like Elsevier. “The prices Virginia institutions must pay aren’t very different from the FSU contract prices, and the impact of the high cost is enormous,” said Ulmschneider. For example, the VCU Libraries spends almost a third of its entire collections budget on journal “big deal” packages, which erodes investment in other essential library materials such as scholarly books.

Library deans and directors across Virginia research universities have been in active conversations about statewide investments in journal big deals. University Librarian John E. Ulmschneider has briefed the VCU Libraries Advisory Committee on these issues over the past academic year, and will be communicating more with the university community in the coming months. “While VCU Libraries will always meet its commitment to provide high-quality resources to our community, we must also seek new and innovative ways to control the alarming growth in costs for them,” said Ulmschneider. 

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