Popular Resources

Recommendations for Providing Alternative Access After a Big Deal Cancellation

As Big Deals start to disappear, the desire that motivated them—easy and instant access to massive amounts of content—doesn’t. In response to cutting subscription access, many institutions put in place ‘alternative access’ strategies to provide pathways to accessing content that was previously available via subscription.

In this resource, we’ll explore some of the major parts of alternative access as part of SPARC’s efforts to help our member libraries save money and secure better deals in negotiations with publishers.

What do we mean by Alternative Access, and how does it fit into the big picture?

For the purposes of this we’ll consider “Alternative Access” as non-subscription access to a resource used in the context of a big deal cancellation.

Generally, alternative access represents two major shifts. First, from “just in case” to “just in time” delivery. For example, Interlibrary Loan and Purchase on Demand are both “just in time” options. Second, relying primarily on free to read content (including open access materials), rather than paid for content. In doing so Alternative Access reverses the predominant trends in serials access of the past several decades. 

Why is Alternative Access needed?

Ensuring researchers have access to the research they need is a critical function of the library, and that doesn’t change after renegotiating a big deal. By incorporating an alternative access strategies, the library can still address this need in the short term, while a reinvestment strategy addresses structural changes needed in the long term.

It’s important to understand that carefully planned cancellations frequently result in limited impacts on researchers. However, an alternative access strategy can limit whatever impacts there are, foreseen or unforeseen, while strengthening your hand in negotiations.

More specifically, alternative access strategies and preparations can address several challenges that can arise in big deal cancellations and negotiations:

  • Communicating a clear message to patrons who may be worried about not being able to get what they need.
  • Getting access may be more complex after a big deal is canceled. For example, if the library doesn’t have paid access, researchers may need to locate an Open Access copy, or request a copy via ILL. Preparations may include improvements to library systems as well as training researchers on updated, modernized research workflows.
  • Demonstrating readiness to walk away from a bad deal.


1. Plan for and clearly communicate what patrons can expect from the library

Maintaining an open line of communication with patrons, both before, during, and after a cancellation is a crucial part of all alternative access planning. Creating a communications plan for alternative access will be at the core of your strategy. 

  • Create easy to locate hubs of material that provide information on cancellations and alternative access research methods.
  • Clearly articulate what patrons can expect including high usage titles to be retained and what subscriptions will be eliminated. 
  • At the outset, set reasonable expectations for how alternative access can meet patrons needs. Thoroughly explain the process of how and when patrons can access content via alternative access strategies.
  • Communicate policies for unmediated access.


2. Implement an easy to follow and seamless alternative access research strategy 

Strike a balance between offering a streamlined alternative access delivery and creating an adaptable workflow that is easily incorporated into patrons’ existing research strategies. Promoting free-to-use resources and getting user buy-in, ultimately conserves library dollars, that can be used to procure rare works that are not easily discoverable or crucial resources that may be only available with a subscription.

  • Be Transparent on why you’re changing availability to content previously available on subscription.. 
    • Emphasize the benefits of alternative access research strategies that include free and timely access to an extensive collection of open works that can result in reduced costs to the libraries and the institution, as a whole.
  • Focus on simple discovery and refinements to researcher behavior – not wholesale changes.  
    • Changing learned behavior is hard, so it’s important to consider carefully what needs to be adjusted.   
    • For example, we don’t recommend overwhelming patrons with the burden of scouring preprint servers or repositories looking for access. Instead, offer simpler solutions to help patrons find what they need.
    • Promote awareness and use of existing services. Many researchers have grown accustomed to the seamless access provided by subscription access, and are not accustomed to taking advantage of basic core library services like interlibrary loan. 
  • Provide basic scholarly communications training to facilitate the adoption of alternative access research strategies:
    • Version training (e.g., preprints, postprints, etc). Researchers should understand when and how to use different versions of an article, and when they need the final published version.
    • Effective search strategies to find open content including tools that deliver open access wherever researchers discover content including tools like Google Scholar, Libkey Nomad, OA Button, EndNote Click and Unpaywall.
    • Encourage the use of personal resource managers like Zotero that allow users to maintain personal research catalogs accessed from a variety of sources. Emphasize that collecting research prevents loss of future access to works that may only be temporarily available (e.g., bronze OA, ILL copies).

3. Library workflows may need to change along with subscription access

Along with transitioning researcher workflows to accommodate alternative strategies,  library workflows may need to change too in order to fully incorporate new scenarios into work habits. Open first may mean altering long-held views of the “right” way to provide services to patrons. 

  • Communicate what role library faculty and staff will serve in supporting a transition to alternative access.
  • Tailor training to address the needs of specific departments within the library (e.g., reference/subject librarians, course reserves team, acquisition metadata department, library administration, etc.). 
  • Align workflows with library goals and budget. Subscription cancellations and budget demands may mean that not every request can be fulfilled. Consider how workflows will be affected by everyday decision-making.
  • Consider changing staffing needs as the need may arise.

4. Mitigate impacts of subscription cancellation via targeted just-in-time document delivery strategies

Libraries can mitigate the impact of not offering subscription access by providing routes that deliver content in a reasonable time frame. Usage of unmediated purchase on demand (e.g., via Getitnow), and tools like RapidILL may be of use for lowering delivery times. Integrating just -in-time delivery services into your discovery system and link resolver can help raise their visibility. However, libraries should also consider the costs associated with maintaining these services to ensure that they are economically sustainable. 

  • Consider the balance between instant delivery and the cost, and determine the scheme that’s right for your library, including considerations of user control over when to utilize immediate delivery..
  • Specific subsets of users (e.g., medical school faculty) may require faster access than others.


5. Improve library systems to use free and open content effectively

Beyond assisting researchers in adapting their behaviors and providing unmediated delivery, library systems can be improved to take advantage of all the benefits of free and open content by incorporating open content and tools in your discovery system and link resolver. Pair discovery tools with systematically adding open content to your discovery layer.

  •  Turn on sources of Open Access in your index and take advantage of Unpaywall integrations with 360 Link, SFX, EBSCO FTF, Primo, or you can build your own.  to deliver OA content when available.
  • Incorporate open access tools like InstantILL into mediated document delivery workflows if you can’t yet incorporate unmediated access.


6. Continuous Evaluation of Subscriptions and Delivery Costs

The delivery method chosen should be the lowest cost to the library. Libraries need to develop workflows to continuously review the delivery costs of a particular journal and subscribe (or unsubscribe) when necessary. Other metrics should be considered in cancellation, delivery, and improvement assessments – including user experience and impact on library teams.

Potential strategies:

  • Assess costs by relying on usage data and delivery fees to determine whether alternative access or subscription will serve needs best
  • Consider shifting interlibrary loan copyright policies away from CONTU and delivering materials under a fair use analysis
  • Use one time and backfile purchases to preserve instant access without the ongoing subscription cost. 
  • Incorporate assessments of the impact of alternative access strategies on library staff, including hours needed for delivery and retraining of all relevant library workers, including access services and frontline and reference personnel.

What does success look like?

A successful alternative access strategy considers or includes:

  • Comprehensive communications plan integrated with communications on cancellation.
  • Fast turn around times for document delivery when possible. Given that for many systems, this can be minutes, aiming for something comparable is a good placeholder, however, curbing unrealistic expectations is equally important, and the ideal benchmark will depend on what works best for your library.
  • Leveraging existing free and open content, back catalogues, and targeted subscriptions.
  • Refined changes to researchers’ workflows to easily incorporate alternative access into their already existing research strategies. Theoretically, just in time delivery need only incur adding one or two clicks to a typical workflow.
  • Relying on open content and open infrastructure to fulfill delivery needs long term – reinvestment is the best long term alternative access plan.
  • Incorporating new perspectives in delivering content to users library-wide, improving workflows, documentation, and training.
  • Optimizing the balance of cost and access, within the library budget.

Examples of Alternative Access pages for users

Pages come in many shapes and sizes, here are a few we’ve found:

  1. National Library of Finland 
  2. University of California
  3. National Library of Sweden
  4. Virginia Tech

Ideas for Cut & Paste Page for Libraries

As a direct result of the unsustainable rising costs of subscriptions set by publishers, and the growing constraints to our budget, [Library Name] is evaluating our e-resource subscriptions to maintain a balanced budget. As we continue our negotiation with [publisher],  [Library Name] is committed to minimizing the impact to our patrons. Should the need arise, here are some alternative ways to access the material you need:

  • Install browser plug-ins Open Access Button and Unpaywall
  • Search for open access copies through Google Scholar, PubMed Central, or OSF Preprints.
  • Use your network and contact the author directly or connect with the author through ResearchGate. Many universities have faculty open access policies and research is deposited in the university’s institutional repository. [Library Name] institutional repository is [XX].  
  • OSF Preprints indexes many online repositories, so you can search from one box.
  • Contact the [ILL name] experts. They can get you the articles you need generally within [xx] hours. 

Questions? Contact the Library

Learn more about our work