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Unsub: Part 1: From Big Deals to Real Deals for Academic Publishing & Libraries

by | Apr 19, 2021 | 0 comments


By: Nancy K. Herther, writer, consultant and former librarian with the University of Minnesota Libraries

Back in 2001, University of Wisconsin Librarian Ken Frasier explained the new “Big Deal” this way: “an online aggregation of journals that publishers offer as a one-price, one size fits all package. In the Big Deal, libraries agree to buy electronic access to all of a commercial publisher’s journals for a price based on current payments to that publisher, plus some increment. Under the terms of the contract, annual price increases are capped for a number of years.”  Things didn’t change much in this pricing system over the next twenty years….however, the situation for libraries certainly has.

The advantage to libraries in having comprehensive journal access from core publishers, online, for their institutions was never easy to swallow, given the price tag; however, it allowed staff to focus attention on smaller presses and allowed for greater fiscal control over library budgets. However, as costs increased by as much as 5%-6% annually, and more independently-published key journals became available, this solution became untenable. 

Academic libraries have gone from expressing frustration to creating change.  In 2019 the Big Ten Academic Alliance library directors created a new approach to the problem, the BIG Collection: “With ever increasing rigor, we will manage the separate collections of the Big Ten as if they were a single shared collection, maximizing access to and ensuring the preservation of the scholarly record in support of our common mission.” Other types of collaborative efforts from other library organizations and systems arose. And, as the BTAA noted, “this is a complex and long-term process, and it may take years to fully realize the vision and all of the components.”


The act of cancelling journal bundles has accelerated across North America and Europe. Since 2017, SPARC (the Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition) has offered a tracking system for big deal cancellations and renegotiations, which clearly shows that change is rapidly happening across the globe. 

The rise of sophisticated publishing units within and amongst academic institutions, often led by campus libraries, appeared along with the increasing use of pre-publication avenues and alternative publishing systems and other author posting options. Today we have a more nuanced publishing ecosystem of preprint servers, postprints repositories and other options, too many to name. These have been critical as new research has been shared broadly during the COVID crisis across the globe, proving the potential of these publishing options. 

Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar

In a recent study by University of Western Kentucky librarians reported that even though article purchasing represented a cost to the institution, “most of these institutions believe their article purchasing program is successful.” In a 2020 article posted on arXiv.org, Marc-Andre Simard, Jason Priem and Heather Piwowar  reviewed published literature on the impact of library Big Deal cancellations on academic libraries, noting that “cancellations have a surprisingly small effect on interlibrary loan requests.”  

Eric Hartnett

Eric Hartnett is Director of Electronic Resources at Texas A&M University Libraries. Managing user expectations and needs during the pandemic has created new issues in acquisitions work today. “The budget in the coming year is the big question we have. We were fortunate in that our university did not see an overall drop in enrollment in the Fall (our undergrad enrollment increased though our grad enrollment decreased slightly). However, we have several factors at play that could affect things. Our state budget operates on a biennium and we’re in the second year so  it’s unclear, at the moment, what kind of funding we’re going to receive from the state.” 

“To add to the confusion,” Hartnett continues, “when we hit the new fiscal year, we will likely have a very new University President (we currently have an interim), a very new University Provost (currently interim), and an interim Dean of the Libraries (the current one is retiring in August) and these positions could really determine what type of support we get from the campus (the previous Provost who stepped down at the end of 2020 was much less supportive than her predecessor). We were already anticipating having to make a $1M cut to our collections budget in one of the next two years. We’re just not sure if it will be next year or if we can push it off to the following year. We still maintain a lot of print subscriptions, which I thought were really underused and not a good return on investment.” 

“Since our stacks have been closed, this content has largely been inaccessible (request only) and the lack of calls requesting access to this content highlights that it’s unneeded so we plan to make serious cuts to these subscriptions.” The COVID crisis has made statistical analysis more of a challenge for Hartnett in terms of defending print journals. “Institutions were already starting to move towards transformative agreements pre-COVID but I get the sense that COVID is hastening the move. Our current Dean has always been a strong proponent of open access and we’ve had a fund to pay APCs for faculty publishing in OA journals for the past six (?) years and each year they seem to burn through it faster than the last. Starting in 2021, we’ve joined three Read & Publish programs and we are looking at other OA initiatives such as supporting PLOS One. We actually had a meeting yesterday where we discussed whether it’s time to shutter our APC fund and funnel the money towards some of these other programs which might have wider reach.”


“Our Dean met with them (Unsub) back in Fall 2019 and agreed to subscribe and they got us set up a year ago. This past summer we led the forming of the Texas Library Coalition for United Action. It’s first course of action was negotiating with Elsevier (still ongoing). We looked at our Elsevier data in Unsub very early on but those outside of the small negotiations team are (intentionally) kept very much in the dark. I’m not on the team and so I’m really not privy to whether it’s been used since. I am glad to see that Unsub has had several publishers added beyond Elsevier.”

“When we first opened the library to the public in June 2020, we opened at 25% capacity and we were updated every two weeks on how things were going and I never heard that ever hit 50% of that cap. We’re now at 50% capacity and, as far as I know, we’re still maintaining a pretty low number of people in the building. As far as Unsub, I don’t think you can look at the list of journals that Unsub says are the most cost-effective titles to keep and cancel the rest, but I think it provides a good starting point.” 

The real value of scientific journals isn’t easy to determine. “I think journal value is highly subjective,” Hartnett believes. “Faculty will tell us the Journal of X is the most important journal in the field and we can’t possibly cancel it but then you look at usage and it’s not being used. At this point, I think it’s still hard to beat citations, faculty publications in the journal, and downloads, keeping in mind that these metrics vary by discipline so you really need to combine the data with the expertise for the field.”


Jeff Kosokoff

Jeff Kosokoff is the primary collection development officer at Duke University and manages the primary Duke University Library (DUL) collections budgets, and provides leadership and vision related to DUL general collections. Although Unsub was not created to deal with the financial crisis created by the COVID pandemic, it   has been a key analytic tool as institutions face their financial futures.

“It seems to me that the long-term impacts of COVID will be pretty minimal at elite institutions. This was a serious blip, but finances seem to be returning to normal pretty quickly.” A  recent Nature study found “a flood of coronavirus research swept websites and journals this year. It changed how and what scientists study.” Once the dust settles on this crisis, however, Kosokoff believes the long-term impact may be slight. “I think we’re overestimating the “COVID” factor here. It may increase momentum towards new models, but nothing really new here. We need new open and transparent platforms that are built to be sustainable and community-owned, of course.”

Wearing masks and physically distanced, students study in the Gothic Reading Room of Perkins Library, which is open through reservation only.

Duke has been a strong Unsub supporter and Kosokoff sees many advantages. “. It is super inexpensive, and we subscribed more to support the project than due to a particular use in mind. Having said that, we are facing significant long-term reductions in university-allocated support for collections, and we are now preparing to use it as part of our communication strategy and data-informed strategies for reducing our spend. Because it pulls together disparate data sources on more than we would nominally have (i.e., more than just usage/cost), it should save us a bit of time and energy. The visualizations and dashboard should be particularly useful for helping librarians and faculty understand the tradeoffs in reducing our spend.”


“There is growing awareness among provosts and other faculty/administrators that they need to change how they judge grad students and more junior faculty if we are really to solve these problems,” Kosokoff believes. “My feeling is that this isn’t at its heart about money, but about how the system is not effective at its designed purpose (judging the quality and impact of scholarship). In a more open and flexible publishing environment, more forms of expression; more open forms of expression, more appropriate forms of expression; more infrastructures for submitting, vetting and accessing them….”

In an article in Science  last July, Unsub was lauded as “game changer” by SUNY Library system senior strategist, Mark McBride. “I don’t think I’m the only one who thinks that.” Given the number of clients to the service, McBride’s assessment is clearly held by many academic libraries and their institutions.

In the second part of this series on Unsub, Jason Priem, one of the creators of Unsub shares his thoughts, plans and perspectives on  Unsub today and the future of academic publishing.

Nancy K. Herther is a research consultant and writer who recently retired from a 30-year career in academic libraries.


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