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Tuesday, June 9, 2020 News

SPARC Debrief on Three Recent Big Deal Cancellations

Open Access

On May 15th, SPARC hosted a member debrief on recent Big Deal cancellations. Curtis Brundy, Evviva Weinraub Lajoie, and Nerea Llamas, spoke about their institutions’ processes leading up to the decision to walk away from their bundled Elsevier subscriptions, shared suggestions for other libraries that may be considering a similar move, and answered questions from the audience. 

All three institutions sought a cost reduction in their upcoming Elsevier contracts, as well as sustainable, affordable, and transparent agreements before making the ultimate decision to unbundle their Big Deals. Each speaker emphasized the importance of campus engagement strategies, including surveying faculty, hosting town halls, and equipping themselves and others with in-depth data analysis processes. Speakers recommend empowered negotiations decision-making through tools and communication strategies, ensuring vendors do not drag out the timeline for their own gain. 

This event stems from SPARC’s Negotiations Community of Practice and is part of our broader effort to support members in responding to the COVID crisis. As libraries grapple with planned cuts and increasing uncertainty, this negotiations work has taken on increased urgency.

These discussions have uncovered additional areas where SPARC can provide support to members and we will keep members updated as we announce additional work in this area. For more information about this event or other community of practice programming, please contact [email protected] 

Below you will find a short summary of each presentation.

State University of New York (SUNY) – Evviva Weinraub Lajoie, vice provost for university libraries, University at Buffalo, SUNY

SUNY is a large and diverse university system made up of more than 60 institutions, including university centers, comprehensive colleges, and technical and community colleges. SUNY had been spending over $9 million annually for its Elsevier contract when it entered into contract negotiations in December 2018. The initial goal was cost savings – ideally trimming at least $1 million. In the end, SUNY walked away from its Big Deal.

To make its case for a price reduction, SUNY noted that comparable-sized City University of New York (CUNY) was paying $3 million less for its Elsevier contract.  

Librarians reached out to faculty with webinars, forums, and online resources that explained the challenges with high priced journal bundles. When it became apparent that canceling was under consideration, the SUNY Faculty Senate passed a resolution supporting the library’s decision to end its Big Deal. Once the resolution passed, it changed the conversation with Elsevier. The broad institutional support left the publisher without the likelihood of a faculty uproar.

SUNY partnered with Unsub, a data dashboard tool developed by Our Research, to do a deep dive and track the use of scholarly articles, which helped to create a list of journals that were most vital. In the end, SUNY agreed on individual titles to purchase and received a 10 percent article processing charge (APC) discount from Elsevier. The system also did not agree to a nondisclosure agreement (NDA).

University of North Carolina (UNC), Chapel Hill – Nerea Llamas, associate university librarian for collections strategy and services

In February 2019, UNC-Chapel Hill began negotiations on a contract with Elsevier, which had already been extended for one year. The bundle it held was worth $2.6 million, and the aim was to cut $1 million. UNC had previously canceled its contract with Wiley in 2018.

Four values guided the university’s strategy: sustainability, affordability, transparency, and Open Access. 

Soon after the University of California system walked away from its Big Deal, UNC thought it may have more leverage in its own negotiations. Early offers from Elsevier appeared similar to previous terms, and negotiations slowed over the summer. UNC canceled ClinicalKey in August, but negotiations continued to move slowly in the Fall. When it was clear that no deal would be reached by the end of 2019, Elsevier asked UNC to renew for one more year while negotiations continued. When UNC refused to agree to an additional year in mid-December, Elsevier asked UNC to sign a letter of intent to guarantee payment for continued access. Llamas indicated that this may be a new approach that Elsevier is employing in their negotiations, but UNC ultimately signed the letter in late January as negotiations continued.

In early March, UNC launched a survey to get feedback from faculty and students. The survey did not ask exactly which journals faculty and students used, but rather how they used the titles (for research, patient care, or instruction). The 14,000 responses helped the library determine how it could decide which journals to keep.

On April 30, UNC ended its bundle, and on May 1, UNC began subscribing to 395 titles for $1.6 million with no inflation cap. UNC also did not sign an NDA, and more titles will likely need to be cut in 2021 because of budget pressure. 

UNC also made changes to ILL to guarantee rapid turnaround, including implementing an unmediated version of Reprints Desk and training staff to respond. 

Time invested in talking to faculty and students at town halls and department meetings gave the library confidence that there was an understanding on campus about why UNC was walking away, and a vote of support from the Faculty Council reaffirmed the decision. Response since the cancelation has been minimal, and many professors have applauded the library for the move and suggested it end contracts with other commercial publishers.

Iowa State University (ISU) – Curtis Brundy associate university librarian (AUL) for scholarly communication and collections

Reflecting on its land-grant mission to serve the public, ISU approached its journal negotiation focused on Open Access, transparency, and financial sustainability. The library explained those values to stakeholders during early campus outreach efforts and garnered support.

To prepare for the negotiation, ISU requested public records to find out what peer institutions had paid for their deals with Elsevier. ISU learned that it was being over charged –paying twice as much as Oregon State, for instance. The lack of transparency and complicated pricing structure had enabled Elsevier to charge different rates that were not linked to any solid reasoning and made true comparisons difficult.  

A data analysis of journal use was conducted with the 1figr Report, though Brundy recommended Unsub as a better option now. Assessing Open Access availability, where authors publish, and citations helped determine which titles were most critical to campus.

Unbundling from Wiley in 2018 gave ISU library experience and confidence in walking away from Elsevier. Though the negotiations dragged on for several months, ISU eventually decided to cancel its Big Deal. 

Brundy encouraged institutions not to agree to two-tiered pricing or sign NDAs, indicating it’s best to get a straightforward discount (10-15% discount from the list price is achievable). Overall, ISU negotiated a 14.5% discount from list price.

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