Florida State University (FSU) lost access to its Elsevier content in March 2019, following cancellation of its $2 million Big Deal contract. However, Elsevier was not their first Big Deal cancellation. FSU had previously canceled their Springer Big Deal in 2016, and so went into their Elsevier negotiations knowing that these negotiations could result in similar outcomes. Elsevier cautioned FSU to prepare to spend a $1 million dollars for tokens and pay-per-view access to content.
Here’s what really happened, and a snapshot of the hard work that went into their bold decision.
The following is a Q&A with Gale Etschmaier, Dean of University Libraries (FSU), and her negotiations team: Valerie Boulos (Associate Dean, Resource Management & Discovery Services), Roy Ziegler (Associate Director for Collection Development), and Jean Phillips (Associate Dean of Libraries for Technology and Digital Scholarship). All were heavily involved in the “Elsevier Exit.” Roy was instrumental in establishing outreach strategies to campus stakeholders, transparently communicating their data analysis to faculty and liaison librarians. Jean and Valerie set up expedited article delivery service, helping FSU establish effective alternative access plans. They also assessed implications for interlibrary loan (ILL), and negotiated the license agreement for 150 new a la carte Elsevier titles after cancellation.
Q. As an institution that has successfully canceled a Big Deal, can you walk us through the cancellation process?
In the spring of 2018, we told faculty we were beginning our Elsevier Big Deal renegotiations. In April, we sent the first letter of intent to Elsevier indicating we could not sustain their cost increases. We had involved faculty heavily in our 2016 Springer Big Deal cancellation, so they were aware of our subscription negotiation process for several years before our potential Elsevier renewal. By the fall semester in 2018, we realized we were going to have to unbundle, as Elsevier was not willing to negotiate sustainable terms with us, and we began assessing journals based on how heavily particular titles were used. We believed we could simply subscribe to single titles until the money ran out. However, when talking with faculty, we ended up having long conversations about choosing titles based on other priorities, including what faculty considered important to their discipline. We also needed to secure their trust that we could still provide them with the content they need. Luckily, what was important to faculty matched our use assessment, and they trusted that the library could provide alternative access to canceled content. After months of negotiation, we formally notified Elsevier we intended to cancel in December 2018.
Q: Can you describe your faculty engagement efforts throughout the Big Deal negotiation process?
If we had tried to cancel our Elsevier package in 2015, we’re unsure if faculty would have been ready at that point, seeing Elsevier as “too important” and “too large” to cancel. In 2015 we began educating faculty about STEM publishing, Big Deals, and the cost increases associated with subscribing to journal content. Our University Administration would often approve, and sometimes could not approve, library budget increases to support our previous subscription increases over the years. By 2018, our faculty were ready to cancel, but getting to that point took some time.
During the Elsevier negotiations in March 2018, we received a unanimous Faculty Senate Resolution supporting the library’s decision to cancel. Working with the Faculty Senate Library Committee was key, as was calling on our previous faculty champions who supported us during our 2016 Springer negotiations. Our faculty acted as spokespeople, advocating on the library’s behalf by elucidating the importance of creating a sustainable library budget. They were also interested in the library’s ability, if a cancellation occured, to provide more holistic collections that support interdisciplinary campus needs as well as underrepresented groups.
Deans and faculty have come back to us after canceling to say “you have done the right thing.”
Q: What factors were important in convincing faculty you are making the right decision to cancel Elsevier?
Faculty wanted that guarantee that they could receive articles near instantaneously, so we added an expedited article service from Reprints Desk to get articles instantaneously for a fee ($30 per article).
Faculty also wanted to hear support from other faculty and university administrators. We had one outspoken faculty member advocating often on our behalf, including at the Faculty Senate, a meeting with the Board of Governors, and in meetings with the University administration. She has a background in the sciences and in the humanities, and could speak from an interdisciplinary lens.
Our dean of the graduate school, Mark Riley, was also a helpful ally. He is a physicist and, in the late 1990s, had written about Elsevier’s business practices. He detailed increasing publishing prices and issues in scholarly communication, and he had a national reputation for supporting fair and sustainable prices.
Q: What were some of the concerns that you heard from campus during this process?
We heard some real concern from faculty in Chemistry, Biology, and Anthropology. We have heard from Anthropology, however, that this cancellation has not impacted their department in a negative way at all. The systems we put in place have more than met their needs.
Many barriers were psychological. If you can afford to spend a lot of money, Elsevier can provide unlimited access to 1800 journals, establishing a monster of an expectation for instant access. A Chemistry faculty indicated he normally has 200 articles open on his desktop while working on a project, and that is what he needed to be successful. He had to get used to the idea that his process might need to change, and we have done the best we can to overcome that access obstacle for him.
Surprisingly, we also had to address some fear among librarians. We shared information internally to reassure librarians that we could support needs with new and existing services. ILL staff were understandably nervous they could not keep up with a potentially new influx of requests, but this influx never happened, and new requests have been manageable.
Q: Did conversations about open access occur during these negotiations?
Once we made the decision to cancel, we had a lot of conversations about open access and reinvestment. We had a very rich conversation about open access with our chairs of the STEM faculty. We discussed the need to support open access journals, and how the library could support changing departmental promotion and tenure guidelines.
We’re also receiving more and more requests for help with article processing charges, so we are having conversations with departments about how to pay those fees. We updated our website with more information about open access publishing options as well.
Q: Did you end up saving money after canceling? If so, what did you decide to do with your savings?
We had substantial savings from the budget we had set aside that year. We anticipated we would have about a million dollars in savings, and of that, we set aside about $100,000 for copyright permissions, article delivery, and tokens.
At first, we were cautious about using the savings for one-time purchases, but we now know it was an excellent decision. We prioritized collections that captured the perspectives of previously marginalized communities to support the research needs of humanities and social science disciplines, in particular. We purchased the NAACP papers and negotiated access for FSU and for Florida A&M University, which is nextdoor, and an institution we collaborate with often. We also purchased the Chicano Archive and materials for our Classics and Humanities departments.
STEM did not get a million dollars back after our cancellation, but we were able to purchase the SAE package for engineering. Prioritizing collections from previously marginalized populations supports the humanities and social science disciplines and their ability to provide a more holistic view of historical events. We’re thrilled our reinvestments could support that research.
We still have a growing list of unmet needs, but this was the first time we could tap into that list to provide access to new collections. We’re also glad we decided to use the savings for one-time purchases because the state of Florida is now requiring us to sequester 7% of our overall budget as of 2019, so if we had not made the decision to cancel the Elsevier Big Deal, we would forced to cancel across the board without having had those prior conversations.
Q: How else has canceling impacted your campus?
We received advice from another institution that canceled Big Deals, and they suggested that we should walk faculty and students through their alternative access options. They noticed that their campus was using ILL over expedited service to get their articles. We noticed the same trend. We used the Reprints Desk to design an expedited article delivery option, which would cost about $30 an article, but were surprised 80-90% of faculty and students at FSU also chose the less immediate and cheaper option, ILL.
Right now, copyright fees seem much more manageable than a million dollars in subscriptions, but these fees may begin increasing the longer we are without our subscription access. Our ILL department is now looking at whether the copyright clearance fee or the Reprints Desk fees are cheaper for some of the titles where we pay copyright clearance. Our analysis so far shows that the Reprints Desk option is currently cheaper. We’re also analyzing the data to explore the point at which we purchase a subscription based on ILL and Reprints Desk requests.
Q: What advice do you have for other institutions going through the same process?
It is really important to communicate transparently throughout the process and bring faculty in to understand the issues and to co-develop solutions. When communicating with campus, we followed protocols established by the university. When we made the final decision, we communicated immediately through the Provost’s Office and through the library, ensuring we were sending the same message at the same time to everyone.
Having university administrators and the head of purchasing at the table during negotiations was also important, but be careful the precedent you set. It was great because our administrators were amazed at what Elsevier was telling us about their business model during negotiations. But now, almost all of our packages that come forward with an inflationary increase are being questioned at that level. We occasionally have to justify even our 150,000 dollar packages, and not just our 2 million dollar Elsevier package, for example. We urge others to set expectations when involving administrators and be aware this can happen.
Be prepared to cancel. If you go into these negotiations believing you must pay the increasing cost, you haven’t gained anything. Don’t be afraid to make these decisions. We thought Elsevier would come back to us after not receiving our check. They haven’t. They were quite shocked we canceled, but did not leave us with any other choice when they failed to see our needs.