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.
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.