Thursday, July 30, 2020

Unbundling the Big Deal: An interview with SUNY’s Shannon Pritting

The Big Deal has been a topic of heated discussion among librarians for some twenty or more years now. When first introduced, the attraction of the Big Deal was immediately obvious, since it allows a library to buy its faculty access to most, if not all, of a publisher’s journals at a much lower “cost per article” (discounted) rate. From the start, however, there were doubters.

Shannon Pritting

In 2001, the Director of Libraries at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, Kenneth Frazier, warned the library community of the dangers of signing big deals, or any comprehensive licensing agreement, with commercial publishers.

“The current generation of library directors is engaged in a dangerous ‘game’ in which short-term institutional benefits are achieved at the long-term expense of the academic community,” he warned, adding that big deals would weaken libraries’ ability to manage their journal collections, foist on them journals they “neither need nor want” and increase their dependence on publishers “who have already shown their determination to monopolize the information marketplace.”

Nevertheless, many libraries did sign big deals. And many later regretted it, not least because, having done so, they felt they had no choice but to keep renewing the contract, even as the cost kept going up and devoured more and more of their budget. 

Libraries felt trapped, conscious that if they did not renew they would have to go back to subscribing to individual journals at list price, which would mean being able to afford access to fewer journals, and fearful that when they discovered that journals they wanted were no longer available, faculty would revolt.

Over time, however, a greater willingness to think the unthinkable emerged, and some libraries began to cancel their big deals. And when they did so the sky did not fall in – which allowed other libraries to take heart.

The list maintained here suggests that libraries began cancelling their big deals as long ago as 2008, but the number doing so has been accelerating in the last few years. What has really focussed minds are the recent decisions by both the University of California and MIT to walk away from their negotiations with Elsevier rather than renew their big deals.

But it is not necessary to walk away completely in the way UC and MIT have done. Instead, libraries can “unbundle” their Big Deal by replacing the large package of several thousand journals they are subscribed to with a small à la carte bundle of a few hundred journals, and in the process save themselves a great deal of money.

What is helping libraries to make the decision to unbundle is the knowledge that more and more research is becoming available on an open access basis. In addition, new tools like Unsub are available to advise them on which journals they can cancel without too great an impact, and which journals are essential and so should be retained. 

Given the big savings that can be realised, and the pressure library budgets are under, unbundling is expected to grow, particularly in light of the straitened circumstances that libraries will find themselves in after the pandemic.

This year a number of US universities have unbundled in favour of smaller packages of journals, including UNC Chapel Hill, Iowa State University and the State University of New York (SUNY) -- a system of 64 institutions. Coming in the wake of UC’s decision to walk away from Elsevier these little deals have attracted a lot of attention. 

In Europe, by contrast, there is a greater focus right no on signing transformative agreements. In addition to providing reading rights, these new-style big deals include prepaid publishing rights to allow faculty to publish their articles on an open access basis. Amongst other things, these deals help assuage concerns about double dipping (where a university may end up paying both article-processing charges and subscriptions for the same journals). 

So how is a decision to unbundle made, and what are the issues and implications of making the decision? To get a clearer picture I spoke recently by email with Shannon Pritting, Shared Library Services Platform Project Director at SUNY. In April, SUNY replaced its Big Deal of 2,200 journals with Elsevier with a “little deal” of just 248 journals. By doing so, it says, it has saved about $7 million.

Unbundling raises a lot of questions, and I suspect we may not have answers to all of the questions for some time.

For instance, as more and more universities unbundle, how accurate will the calculations informing the decisions about which journals to give up and which to keep prove to be over time? This could have implications for, amongst other things, how much of the money that has been saved will need to be spent on obtaining paywalled articles through Interlibrary Loan (ILL) and document delivery services.

Moreover, since unbundling appears currently to be mainly a US thing (with Europe favouring transformative agreements) might we see a geographical divide emerge? If we do, what might the implications of this be, especially for the open access movement?

In addition, might unbundling encourage more researchers to use illegal services like Sci-Hub, and might unbundling see university libraries marginalised to some extent, especially if they do not play an active role in funding open access?

Please read on for the interview. 

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt discusses new OA agreement with the University of California

The Public Library of Science (PLOS) and the University of California (UC) have today announced a two-year agreement designed to make it easier and more affordable for UC researchers to publish in the non-profit open-access publisher’s suite of seven journals.

Under the agreement – which is planned to go into effect this Spring – UC Libraries will automatically pay the first $1,000 of the article processing charge (APC) incurred when UC authors choose to publish in a PLOS journal.

Authors who do not have research funds available can request UC Libraries pay the full APC fee. The aim is to ensure that lack of research funds does not present a barrier for UC authors wishing to publish with PLOS.

The pilot is intended to test whether an institutional participation model that leverages multiple funding sources, rather than only grant funds, can provide a sustainable and inclusive path to full open access.

Below PLOS CEO Alison Mudditt discusses the new agreement and addresses some of the issues that the current trend for universities and consortia to sign so-called transformative agreements with legacy publishers raises for native open-access publishers like PLOS.

The interview begins …

Alison Mudditt
RP: The PLOS/UC agreement is essentially the same deal as UC signed with JMIR Publications in January. Is that correct?

AM: Essentially yes. UC has made their priorities for these agreements clear, so most UC deals will be very similar.

In addition, we are generating custom reporting for the UC to help them evaluate the efficacy of the pilot in bringing new authors to open access publishing while maintaining existing funding streams.

RP: Would I be right in thinking that these deals are native open-access publishers’ response to the transformative agreements that legacy publishers have been signing with universities and consortia like Project DEAL?

AM: While we can only speak on behalf of PLOS, this is certainly one of the drivers for us. We think that there is a significant opportunity for institutions and funders to prioritize partnerships with native OA publishers who stand fully aligned with their OA objectives.

We have been reassured by the commitment from institutions and consortia not to sideline negotiations with (and thereby disadvantage) native OA publishers.

RP: How many articles do you envisage UC faculty publishing with PLOS during the two-year period of the agreement?

AM: If we base it on previous years, then around 600-800 articles.

RP: How many articles a year do UC faculty currently publish with PLOS?

AM: Around 300 per year, across the seven journals.

RP: As I understand it, the agreement means that UC faculty will be able to publish in any PLOS journal and the first $1,000 will be paid by UC libraries. If the researcher has access to no research funds s/he can request full funding from the libraries. Is there any maximum sum agreed with UC libraries such that the funds could run out before the pilot ends?

AM: Yes, we have agreed to a capped total spend of $1.5M USD over the two-year period. This cap reflects library spend plus grant funding declared by authors.

Once that spending cap is reached, PLOS has committed to cover the cost of additional UC publications (assuming UC authors continue to faithfully declare their existing grant funding, a two year spend is most likely to fall between $1.2M and $1.25M).

$1.5M would demonstrate an unprecedented increase in publications from the UC – but of course, a key unknown is the level of demand once the barrier of APCs is removed.

If for some reason, we reach this cap earlier in the agreement period than expected (if at all), we have agreed to good faith renegotiations to ensure that both PLOS and the UC are protected from unanticipated surges in cost.

RP: Will the details of the agreement be published?

AM: Yes – as are all of the UC agreements.

RP: PLOS has an Institutional Account Program, of which I do not think UC is currently a participant. What is the difference between the agreement announced today and UC simply signing up to become a participant of the IAP?

AM: The Institutional Account Program is a simple direct billing program meant to minimize administrative overhead of APCs either through pay-as-you-go monthly invoices or debiting from a standalone account. While useful for mitigating administrative costs, it is not an OA deal, or transformative, in and of itself.

This new deal enables the UC to allow grants to cover APCs when they exist, so they can focus their support on where it is needed most (i.e. where authors do not have the grant funds). It introduces an organized, multiple-payer model of OA, which we think is important to test out.

And it meets our primary goals with new business models of ensuring that any author who wants to can publish with PLOS, regardless of ability to pay an APC.