For those who don’t know, the Big Deal is an arrangement with ejournal publishers to bundle their entire content into a large package of ejournals, while charging less than the full content would cost a library through individual subscriptions. An example is Elsevier, which provides something called the “Freedom Package” to academic libraries. For a relatively small percentage of what a library pays for Elsevier subscriptions, the library get access to everything Elsevier publishes. That’s the upside.
The downside is that, once locked into multiyear licenses for these Big Deals, libraries are unable to reduce their number of subscriptions or lower their ejournal costs if they need to. The cost always goes up by a fixed amount (e.g., 5 percent) every year, regardless of the library budget, and flexibility over those budgets is steadily eroded with time, as the Big Deals continue to rise faster than most budgets can allow for.
The Big Deal was designed to alleviate a problem. For a long while, commercial science, technology, engineering, and medicine (STEM) journal publishers were raising prices far faster than either inflation or library budgets were increasing, sometimes with annual double-digit percentage increases. Everything else increased too, but at rates that were nothing compared to the rapid rise of STEM journal prices. In response, libraries in the eighties and nineties started dropping journal subscriptions en masse because they were running out of money allotted to journals.
Some very clever people figured out how to stop libraries from doing that, and thus we got the Big Deal. This was supposed to be a help to libraries, but in the long run it’s becoming clearer that it has been very good to the publishers while creating another unsustainable model for academic libraries. And they’re really tough to get away from, because commercial STEM publishers have typically made it financially painful to back out of the Big Deals to save money or achieve more budget flexibility.
The result? Libraries have been increasing the percentage of their budget spent on ejournals because they have little choice. If they want to provide any of the content from a particular publisher, they have to provide all of the content, even if they don’t want it and can’t pay for it. With a steadily rising price increase that many libraries don’t have the budget to match, the inevitable result is that budgeting for everything that isn’t a STEM ejournal gets cut, sometimes dramatically.
Until now, the evidence for this was usually confined to one library’s budget history or to simply deducing it from understanding the logic of how these deals work. But now, thanks to Walt Crawford’s new book The Big Deal and the Damage Done, we can see some data showing what a decade of Big Deals has done to library budgets. It’s not a pretty picture.
Crawford analyzes academic library budgets from 2002-2010 (the latest data available). The analysis is both by size of library budget and by type of institution of higher education, so that whether your library spends a certain amount or is a particular type of library you can get some comparative data on how library budgets have been dramatically reorganized in what must be a response to the inflexibility of Big Deals.
As an example, consider the figures for “the biggest libraries,” which he classifies as the 661 libraries included that spent more than $1.5 million in 2010. The median group saw their percentage spent on serials increase 51 percent, while their expenditure on books shrunk 11 percent. The top quartile saw a 20 percent rise in serial expenditure, with a whopping 41 percent decrease in book expenditure. Libraries in the third quartile spent an average of 83 percent of their budgets on ejournals alone. Even this result is slightly less drastic as it might ordinarily be, because the top 25 or so libraries have managed to keep their budgets in line, while all the rest see the inevitable blob of ejournals devouring their budgets.
Going through the libraries by budget size or by type of institution, the charts are clear. In every category, the percentage of spending on journals rose faster than the percent spent on books, and that’s true even for libraries that have managed to increase their spending for books. Usually, on the graphs, the lines representing percentage of library budgets on serials and books are moving in opposite directions.
That’s also generally true for everything else that’s part of the library budget. The percentage of spending on everything that isn’t an ejournal is decreasing, while journal spending increases. Crawford’s conclusion: “If things continue along the same line as they have from 2000 to 2010, the damage done may become irreparable, as a growing number of academic libraries become little more than subsidized article transfer mechanisms.” Those libraries will probably have one ejournals librarian and no building, because there won’t be money for anything else.
One library, which I hope is an outlier, had a budget of $6 million and “spent less than $100,000 in 2002 dollars on books and other non-current-serials acquisitions.” In practice, this means that as long as the users of that library need access to current STEM ejournals, they’re in great shape. If they need access to anything else, tough luck. The library isn’t there to serve people like them, regardless of whether they have majors or doctoral programs requiring books or just want more money to spend on other initiatives.
These budget reallocations didn’t happen because there were fewer books being published, or because scholars—especially in the humanities and social sciences, but even in the sciences— didn’t need books for their work. They happened because libraries have become trapped in ejournal licensing packages that leave them no flexibility. Gone are the days when libraries could cancel subscriptions to save money for other things. Now libraries can back out of a Big Deal, lose 60 percent of their access to content, and still pay more in individual subscriptions than were already paying.
Maintaining the Big Deals is great…for the publishers. It’s not bad for scientists. It’s just really bad for everyone else who needs to use an academic library.
I recommend reading the book for yourself. It provides a good overview of what’s been happening to academic library budgets on average since the Big Deals took effect. It might also provide some quantitative analysis to support looking for alternative models that aren’t detrimental to so many users who depend on the library for something other than commercial STEM serials.