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Wednesday, September 2, 2020 News

Unsub Gives Libraries Powerful Evidence to Walk Away from Big Deals

Open Access   ·   Open Education

Heather Piwowar and Jason Priem are working non-stop to accelerate the pace of the open science revolution.

The pair co-founded the non-profit organization Our Research, which recently developed and debuted Unsub, a data dashboard and forecasting tool that helps academic libraries cut their subscriptions to expensive bundles of toll-access journals.

Jason Priem (left) and Heather Piwowar

“Libraries are stuck with these expensive Big Deal subscriptions, even as the growth of Open Access makes cancellation relatively painless. Librarians aren’t confident about their options about whether they can walk away,” Priem says. “That’s what Unsub is meant to fix.”

Unsub (formerly known as Unpaywall Journals) has widely been hailed as a game changer in the scholarly communications market, providing institutions with the leverage they need when negotiating with publishers over journal subscription packages.  The tool forecasts the value and costs of individual journals to specific institutions, leveling the playing field for the first time for libraries when conducting negotiations with publishers. 

“Librarians have felt like the Big Deal isn’t a good deal for a while, as prices went steadily up and budgets didn’t,” Piwowar says. “Unsub provides librarians with the data about the actual value of the collection they being asked to purchase to back up their intuitions, and to present to faculty and administration, making the case that other fulfillment paths are usually much more cost effective.”

When Piwowar and Priem built the platform in late 2019, interest was immediately very high among universities in North America. Now the company is signing up national labs, consortia, libraries around the world, and as well working with industry librarians. More than 300 libraries are signed up for Unsub, which costs between $500 and $3,000 per library per year, depending on the library’s size 

“Everyone needs to be more efficient with their money right now, and Unsub provides the data to help you do that,” says Piwowar. “Institutional mandates increasingly require immediate Open Access. This future simply isn’t consistent with the high-profit, toll-access business model of the past. The long-term goal of Unsub is to speed the transition to business models to the future:  a future where everyone can read and build on human knowledge for the betterment of society.” 

SPARC hosted a webinar in July where librarians shared their experience with using Unsub. Several touted the benefit of having evidence to show their institution’s administration the potential savings they could achieve by eliminating journals critical mass of content that could otherwise be accessed freely — and legally — online. The tool was instrumental in helping the State University of New York (SUNY) track the use of scholarly articles and create a list of journals that were most vital. 

“Emotionally and philosophically we were there in wanting to negotiate a better deal,” says Mark McBride, Library Senior Strategist in the Office of Library and Information Services at SUNY. “We had a strong appetite to walk away, but we also needed access. The key with Unsub is that the data put us in the driver seat.”

The system had been spending about $9 million a year before it decided to cancel its bundled Big Deal with Elsevier. Now it subscribes to a few hundred individual Elsevier journals at an estimated savings of $7 million annually.

“The point of Unsub is to take away much of the uncertainty of doubt around cutting journals,” Priem says. 

The tool is designed to be easy to use and to provide customized information to each institution. Librarians input information about their collection into Unsub and a forecast is provided that can eliminate the guesswork about the potential impact of canceling a journal. The options take into account both immediate and long-term savings, based on calculations of the institution’s contracts.  Unsub incorporates detailed information about subscription history, journals by discipline, ILL requests, citations by faculty and other metrics to help institutions make decisions having a clear sense of the potential outcome.

In addition to the enterprise, the mission side of Unsub is to make it unprofitable for publishers to continue using a toll-access model. “We want to basically poison that well – because there is another, better well – a great fresh water well that is the open access model,” says Priem. “We can beg and plead the publishers to change, but as long as they are making huge profit margins, why would they ever switch? We want to make it more appealing to switch.”   

As Unsub gains traction, its developers are encouraged about the broad impact of their growing company.

“It’s about making research that belongs to everybody and that can be used by everybody,” Priem says. “Whether that’s getting information to patients with open access or getting data and code to scientists – across the open spectrum, we want to improve the way humanity does science.”

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