Equity, affordability, and accessibility were at the center of the recent decision by the Virginia Research Libraries (VRL) consortium to cut their spend with Elsevier nearly in half while maintaining access to their most frequently used materials.
The decision by six members of VRL (William & Mary, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, George Mason University, Old Dominion University, and James Madison University) was grounded in a values-driven negotiation process that relied on data to make the case to move away from Elsevier’s “Big Deal” Freedom Collection. The new one-year agreement with Elsevier for 2021 significantly reduced the overall spend for each campus and allowed for a collection tailored to include each institution’s most used materials.
To discuss the process, SPARC hosted a webcast on March 24 featuring Carrie Cooper, dean of university libraries at William and Mary; Leslie O’Brien, director of collections and technical services at Virginia Tech; and Brandon Butler, director of information policy at the University of Virginia, with moderator Scarlet Galvan, collection strategist librarian at Grand Valley State University and lead of the Campus Partnerships and Planning Working Group within SPARC’s Journal Negotiation Community of Practice .
VRL institutions have individual contracts with publishers but work collectively to negotiate every few years. After dissatisfaction with their last negotiation with Elsevier in 2016, VRL decided to take a different approach and lay the groundwork for recalibrating their relationship with the publisher if Elsevier wouldn’t meet them on their terms.
Librarians in the consortium held monthly calls to strategize and “build courage” to walk away from a contract if they couldn’t get what they needed on behalf of their institutions, Cooper said. “I’m really proud of what we’ve accomplished but the work continues,” she added.
Operating budget challenges associated with the pandemic prompted the VRL libraries to renegotiate the last year of their existing agreements. The library group will resume negotiations later this year for a longer agreement at the end of 2021.
Butler noted there was clear consensus to craft better terms with Elsevier and their monthly calls laid the groundwork of awareness for what it would mean to break a Big Deal.
“In time, it helped people feel more and more comfortable and competent in this challenge,” Butler said. “Everyone wanted to take it on, but we had to get there in terms of gearing up for it.”
VRL had subcommittees that divided up tasks and created communication lines between staff equivalents at each institution. Creating those communication lines was a “game changer” Butler said in garnering broad support and allowing each institution to move forward together.
“We were moving along in our understanding and in our ability to imagine a future without the Big Deal contract, but there was a moment when the people who worked in our organizations were not where we were,” Cooper said. “We had to be intentional about addressing the concerns of library staff. Not only is it engaging your campus community, but you have to bring staff along with you.”
One of the goals going into the negotiation was to reduce the spend with Elsevier, said Butler. “Some schools frame the serials crisis as their budgets not growing fast enough to keep up with costs. But the tragedy here is not that we can’t give more money to Elsevier. That is not what we regret. What we regret here is that Elsevier is in a position to try to extract this much money from us.”
VRL’s intention is to take some of the money universities would usually spend on a Big Deal and direct it to new platforms and seed projects. At UVA, Butler noted that “There’s a lot of stuff we’ve been saying ‘no’ to for a long time. We were very clear that we’re grounding this in the interests of faculty to access research—this is not a political exercise at the expense of access, but rather, in service of access. That really was a major, major game changer in terms of persuading folks and helping them see us as aligned with them.”
O’Brien noted that the cancellation provided Virginia Tech the ability to license new resources to support the humanities and social sciences faculty. She emphasized that the library “can start to address some very specific needs that have come in from the faculty. It’s always difficult when you get requests for new journals, new databases, typically you have to cancel something in order to make that happen.”
The librarians spoke on their campuses, to faculty assemblies, and presented at a meeting of the Virginia university presidents to make the case for renegotiating.
At William & Mary, Cooper said, “We demonstrated our expertise and committed to being transparent about the cost of all of our big deals; and, we emphasized the strategic nature of working across Virginia. Every time we [presented], I could see faculty growing more comfortable with the decisions we had to make.” Cooper added that their decision to reduce spending had the full backing of the provost and president at William & Mary.
Data from Unsub and individual campus reports were critical for many campuses to demonstrate the potential impact of cancellation and plans to respond, O’Brien said. Each VRL campus shared the cost of their Big Deal internally and then publicly, agreeing that transparency gave them leverage in reaching the best outcome for their communities.
“We all felt that was a turning point,” Butler said of making public the massive price tags of the subscriptions in comparison to the library budget. “That was always effective. It showed the unsustainable growth and how this was out of balance.”
VRL is committed to ongoing openness and has refused to sign non-disclosure agreements. The panel noted that VIVA, Virginia’s academic library consortium, has been closely watching the renegotiation process to inform its decisions moving forward.
In campus conversations, the librarians also emphasized that they were not alone in facing this pricing challenge with publishers, referencing the value in having conversations with others through SPARC’s Journal Negotiation Community of Practice and resources like the Big Deal Cancellation Tracker.
Going forward, the Virginia libraries have devised alternatives to meet demand through existing subscriptions, backfile content, open access journals and repositories, and interlibrary loan services including article purchase.
In response to a comparison between VRL’s approach and other institutions pursuing read and publish contracts with large publishers, Butler added, “This group has never been very interested in that model of transformative agreements where one of the premises is we’ll continue to spend like we did before. We want to change how that money is used. We don’t want to continue to spend how we did before. So many of us in this group had the sense that part of what we wanted to do was just give Elsevier less money and give more money to some other people who could use it in different ways.”
Information on this deal can now be found in SPARC’s Big Deal Cancellation Tracker, bringing the total number of libraries that have left big deals in 2021 to 12.