February 16, 2018

The Big Deal’s Damage | Peer to Peer Review

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.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum (rbivens@princeton.edu) is the Philosophy and Religion Librarian at Princeton University and an adjunct instructor at the University of Illinois Graduate School of Library and Information Science. He blogs at Academic Librarian.

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  1. The argument being made in this piece is best expressed in this analogy: The author went to McDonalds, and they suggested that he get a combo meal (hamburger, fries, soda), so he got it. He ate the burger and fries, and drank all the soda, including a free refill.

    Now the author is whining, saying he really didn’t want the fries; he only wanted the burger and soda, and it’s McDonalds fault that he had to pay for all three things when he really only wanted two.

    The author is trying to blame publishers for the free choices that libraries have made. I think it’s time for academic librarians to be honest and to take responsibility for their decisions.

    I also want to point out that some of the arguments made in this polemic are just not true. Here’s an example:

    “If they [libraries] 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.”

    This is a false and self-contradictory argument that makes no sense.

    The truth is that the Big Deal has been great for libraries; that’s why they willingly accepted it. No one forced them into it. I find the author’s argument here to be pure bilge.

    • Joe Kraus says:

      The fast-food analogy is close but not quite. Libraries can’t just go to another fast-food joint to get another type of better or cheaper burger, fries and drink. The content that libraries subscribe to is unique; one specific journal article can’t be replaced by another article at another publisher. If a faculty member needs article X, it can’t be replaced by article Y. Also, the people who are hungry for the information are not the ones paying for it out of their pockets. The libraries and the institutions are paying for it. If the students and faculty members were paying for the content out of their pockets, we would see a different economic system. But, since librarians want to please their patrons, libraries are slow to cancel titles or change subscriptions because of the inelastic system that has been set up. This old-ish article from 2000 describes the inelastic economic system pretty well–“Academic Journal Pricing and Market Power: A Portfolio Approach” http://mccabe.people.si.umich.edu/JournPub.PDF

    • So, not a close analogy at all?

      When we look at journal prices, I always recommend we cancel Brain and subscribe to Mind instead. It’s much cheaper.

  2. What a peculiar analogy. I’m not even sure how to respond to such a comment, but considering your tone I won’t bother. Perhaps you could tell us what percentage of your acquisitions budget is spent on serials and whether that percentage has grown or not over the last ten years. The evidence in Crawford’s book is pretty clear, but possibly your library has a different experience.

    • I think it’s probably up to somebody at Beall’s library to post the actual experience. The numbers I see from NCES certainly suggest that the non-serials acquisitions budget there has suffered badly while the serials budget has grown enormously, but there’s a peculiarity in the serials reporting that makes me reluctant to quote actual figures. As for the analogy…words fail me.

    • There are really only three possible logical responses to this data for anyone wanting to maintain the belief that “big deals are good for libraries.”

      1) One could deny the data is correct, which would only be persuasive were there some alternative data. Otherwise, it’s just ignoring uncomfortable evidence. It’s easier to ignore uncomfortable evidence than refute it.

      2) One could deny that Big Deals had anything to do with this significant restructuring of library acquisitions budgets over the last decade. This would require some alternative explanation to the obvious one, which numerous librarians have experience as they have deliberately reduced spending on other material to pay for inflexible and ever increasing serials. Still, it’s barely possible.

      or 3) One would have to claim that despite this budget restructuring and the concomitant disservice to every library user who needs something other than ejournals, that Big Deals are still good for libraries. That would require some sort of evaluative framework that would take the unmet needs of other users into account somehow. This is really the only area for substantive disagreement. What are the values of libraries? Should they serve all their faculty and students, including those in monograph-heavy fields? Etc.

      Otherwise, there’s not much point in engaging in a rational discussion, not that Beall was attempting to.

    • I knew nothing about the University of Colorado at Denver, so I looked at the website. It isn’t a traditional university in the sense that its graduate programs cover the “universe” of disciplines. There are numerous doctoral programs in the sciences, none in the humanities, and almost none in the social sciences. In other words, it’s the sort of university that would be least harmed by spending significant percentages of the budget on ejournals and almost none on books. I won’t say unharmed, because there are undergraduate humanities majors, which means humanities faculty who are no doubt expected to do research, but they would be no worse off than at any four-year college. The library also isn’t an ARL library.

      I’m interested more in the situation for more standard research universities that have doctoral programs in the humanities and social sciences as well as the sciences, and also for research universities as a group that collect the scholarly and human record. If a university has doctoral programs in the humanities and a steadily shrinking book budget, that’s a problem.