UK Libraries reject “Big Deals”

A consortium of major research libraries in the United Kingdom have told the two largest journal publishers that they will not renew their “big deals” with them if they do not make significant real-terms price reductions. Research Libraries UK (RLUK), which includes the Russell Group university libraries, as well as the UK’s national libraries and Trinity College Library Dublin, have told Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell that they will not renew their current deals when they expire at the end of this year unless the concession is made. “Big deals” involve libraries paying a blanket fee for electronic access to a publisher’s entire journal catalogue. (Elsevier publishes around 2000 journals, and Wiley-Blackwell around 1500.)

“Big deals” were initially welcomed by librarians (including those in the University of California system and the California Digital Library) when they were first introduced more than a decade ago. However, David Prosser, RLUK’s executive director, said consistent above-inflation price increases and the current squeeze on library budgets meant that big deals were accounting for an ever-greater proportion of libraries’ budgets and were no longer affordable.

Publishers argue that big deals have seen the unit cost of access to research articles drop considerably and that price rises are justified due to the ongoing expansion in research outputs and, consequently, journals. But Prosser said publishers have made large savings from the shift to electronic submission and distribution, which had “not necessarily been passed on to the customer.”

If the libraries cancel their big deals they intend to make savings by buying only high-use journals from the publishers. Articles from lower-use journals will be shared between them in an electronic version of an interlibrary loan. Prosser admitted that the publishers might react by putting up the price of high-use journals, but predicted that such a move would fall foul of competition authorities. He said he expected that libraries would already be talking to researchers about the titles that could be dropped with the least impact. “It is not a question of whether we drop journals, it is a question of which we drop,” he said. “In my view it is better to drop low-use titles bundled into packages than to drop medium-use titles from smaller publishers outside big deals (so that we maintain) a healthy publishing environment with a wide variety of publishers.”

RLUK also wants publishers to quote prices and price increases rises in sterling (British currency), rather than in Euros or US dollars, so that UK library budgets are not affected by currency fluctuations. “If you are spending over £1 million a year on one big deal those fluctuations can be quite significant,” he said. “They should be a risk for commercial bodies to take on board rather than public sector bodies like universities.”

Prosser said that Russell Group vice-chancellors were backing the librarians’ stance, as was the National Union of Students. Usman Ali, vice-president for higher education at the NUS, said that “for too long private publishing companies have been getting away with gouging universities on journal costs. It is time the publishing companies made themselves accountable to the wider academic community in the UK.”

Elsevier and Wiley-Blackwell declined to comment for this article, which was first published on August 18th in the Times Higher Education Supplement and written by Paul Jump. The article has been slightly edited for this blog.