March 22, 2018

More on the Damage Done | Peer to Peer Review

Wayne Biven-TatumLast year, Walt Crawford self-published a book entitled The Big Deal and the Damage Done (which I wrote about here). In it, he analyzed statistics for academic library budgets and showed that Big Deals for serials were gradually taking over many library budgets as serial expenditures rose significantly more than inflation and the inflexibility of the subscription packages led libraries to cut expenditures for books and other materials. This year, Crawford published a revised and expanded report on the topic as the May/June volume of the ALA Library Technology Reports: “Big-Deal Serial Purchasing: Tracking the Damage,” in which he analyzes the “Academic Library Data Files” from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center for Education Statistics.

Although serial prices aren’t rising as fast as they did in the 1990s, the evidence still suggests that serial prices continue to rise well above inflation. Crawford reports that “between 1996 and 2000, serials spending increased by an astonishing 33% more than inflation in just four years. While current serials spending was 36% higher in 2002 than in 1996 (that is, 3% more than in 2000), that’s a much smaller increase.”

Publishers naturally love the Big Deals. Some librarians even tout them as excellent for library budgets, though that seems to be more a matter of ideology than evidence-based belief. To describe his findings about library budgets before and after the creation of the Big Deals, Crawford uses an analogy to someone who has “been gut shot and is bleeding at the rate of one pint of blood per hour. If doctors patch things up so that the patient is now losing one pint of blood per day, that’s a substantial improvement—but only a fool would say the problem has been solved and send the patient home.” Dark humor to describe a dark situation for library budgets.

The problems aren’t quite as bad as they were in the 1990s, but there are still problems. Big Deal subscription prices continue to rise faster than inflation and faster than library budgets. Big Deal packages are designed to be inflexible and immune to trimming, so as they rise faster than budgets rise, their percentage of the budget steadily grows. One doesn’t even have to analyze reams of data to understand the basic budgetary logic of the Big Deal, but the data adds concrete evidence.

It’s not equally bad for all libraries. The largest and richest libraries have managed to keep book spending at or above the 1996 level, but other libraries aren’t having so good a time of it. For the largest libraries at research universities, the overall increase in serials spending from 2002-2012 was 25 percent, while the spending increase on books and other materials was 1 percent. The median, however, was a 22 percent increase for serials, and a 13 percent decrease for books. Even at the largest research libraries, the trend of serials spending gradually taking over library budgets is undeniable. Since the largest amount of serials spending at most of these libraries goes to Big Deal packages, those packages are part of the cause.

The situation for liberal arts colleges is worse. The statistics show “that most of these libraries saw cuts overall—but most of them nonetheless spent more on serials, while three-quarters lost at least 10% of books spending. In fact, two-thirds (67%) lost at least 25% of books (etc.) spending, including 36% where that spending dropped by half or more.” In 4-year-colleges and master’s level universities, serials expenditure all rose as a proportion of spending and spending for books and other materials fell.

In the final chapter, Crawford speculates on what could be done to reverse this trend. “Transparency in Pricing” and “Transparency in Costs” are two suggestions that publishers try to make impossible. If they didn’t hate other libraries knowing what some library is paying for access, they wouldn’t insist on non-disclosure agreements. Other suggestions are already happening to some extent at some libraries. Some libraries are turning away from the Big Deals to regain more flexibility in their budgets. There’s an active open access movement that some publishers and a few librarians try to thwart or co-opt. My favorite suggestion might be “More Money!” That way everyone wins. While some libraries are doing relatively well, Crawford notes that “for all library budgets to be at least as high per capita as they were in 2002, adjusting for inflation, would take more than $2 billion in additional funding.” A billion here and a billion there and pretty soon we’re talking about real money.

When I wrote about Crawford’s last effort to track the damage done by Big Deals to library budgets, a librarian well known for his compilation of so-called “predatory journals”—but who should become better known for his hostility to all open access scholarly publishing—left the following comment: “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.” According to this odd logic, choices made freely are always good, and their consequences as well. I can’t imagine something as mundane as actual evidence persuading people like that, but the rest of us will find the data Crawford analyzes hard to ignore. So if you can get hold of “Big-Deal Serial Purchasing: Tracking the Damage,” I highly recommend reading through it for a sobering look at the topic.

Wayne Bivens-Tatum About Wayne Bivens-Tatum

Wayne Bivens-Tatum ( 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. Theresa Liedtka says:

    What is interesting is that smaller libraries who could not previously afford the “big deal” due to budget limitations are now finding new opportunities to expand access to collections, and at much, much lower costs than the earlier adopters.

  2. Lucy Maziar says:

    The big deal serial packages have been great for my small library and really a much better deal than handpicking individual titles. We had numerous legacy titles that when they went online, we found out they were hardly being used and that the usage could never justify the price. We dropped a lot of individual titles and replaced them with packages. The big deal serial packages give my patrons access to a lot more information and as long as the usage justifies the price, I am fine with it. When the per article price exceeds my threshold then I will go back and negotiate a more reasonable price or I will have to cut the package. If I have to cut the package (and I will), I may just subscribe to the most used titles or go to my faculty and explain the problem and get their input on alternatives. I do object to some publishers who basically hold you hostage to your individual subscriptions in order to get the package deals but again, I look at the per article usage cost and if it is low enough, I will continue. Whether we are talking about big deal packages or individual titles, some providers/publishers have always raised subscriptions prices at a rate greater than inflation — I think it is more an issue with serials in general than the big deal packages.

    • Thanks for your perspective, Lucy. One question, though. It’s obvious that the Big Deals have increased access for most libraries. The question raised by Crawford’s data is whether that access has come t the price of everything else. Is the share of your budget used for Big Deals growing faster than everything else and slowly taking over the entire budget? Are you still able to buy all the books and other materials you want? If so, that’s great, but it seems that a lot of libraries are just buying less of everything else to accommodate the steady increases in journal packages.