Prices for scholarly journals keep increasing while a growing movement aspires to make the research that journals publish freely available. The intertwined issues are emboldening libraries in their negotiations with major academic publishers, prompting many institutions to trim journal subscriptions and seek new types of agreements that support open access.
Iowa State University Library is no exception. In recent and future publisher deals, the library has looked for ways to reduce journal costs with minimal disruption and push research out from behind paywalls, said Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian for scholarly communication and collections.
Both issues will be in play in this year's contract talks with Elsevier, the largest academic publisher, which has a three-year deal with Iowa State that expires at the end of 2019.
Back to the core
The savings usually come from forgoing so-called "big deals," which include subscriptions to all of a publishing company's journals for a flat rate. Big deals became common about 15 years ago as publishers transitioned from a print-only business model to the online environment, Brundy said. Instead of carrying individual journal subscriptions from a major publisher, those most read and cited, libraries could provide access to the publisher's entire journal collection.
“With the expanded content came increased usage, but it also accelerated the already spiraling costs of journals,” he said. “Libraries recognized from the beginning that the annual inflation charged by publishers, which has far outstripped the Consumer Price Index for decades, would make big deals financially unsustainable.”
As predicted, big deals delivered big price hikes to libraries. Annual increases of 5% or more gobbled up a ballooning share of often flat collections budgets, Brundy said. In fiscal year 2019, Iowa State's direct spending on journals is about $6 million, more than half of a collections budget that also includes books, audiovisual materials, databases, indexes and reference materials.
Mounting costs have increasingly pushed libraries to drop subscription packages. The Scholarly Publishing and Academic Resources Coalition (SPARC), an open-access advocacy group, maintains an online tracker of big deal cancellations at libraries worldwide. The list is at more than 50 and growing.
Often, big deals are replaced with per-title subscriptions to a core group of journals similar to what a library would have carried before the advent of big deals. Though the sticker price on individual subscriptions is high, libraries' savings can approach 30% by subscribing to only the most-needed journals based on usage data, Brundy said. The savings can be used to defray other rising collections costs and to add new content, he said.
That's about how much was saved by declining to continue in a big deal package with Wiley, the second-largest academic publisher. Iowa State's three-year agreement with Wiley expired at the end of 2018. Rather than renewing the big deal for another three years, the library has retained individual subscriptions to the 324 most important titles. When determining which titles to retain, in addition to article downloads, the library considers where faculty publish, where they cite and if access is available from other sources. Iowa State also ended its big deal with Springer Nature in 2012, dropping from more than 1,000 titles to a little more than 300.
The large profit margins of the biggest publishers have provided a powerful incentive to keep libraries locked in big deals, Brundy said, but institutions that leave big deals have found retaining a targeted list of individual subscriptions, supplemented by interlibrary loan and other access options, can meet their research and learning needs. Plus, libraries that leave big deals still retain digital access to past issues of journals they have paid for, in some cases extending as far back as 1997, he said.
Along with backing away from subscription bundles, libraries that support open-access publishing goals are trying to forge "transformative" agreements that expand free access to research. A transformative deal aims to change how journal publishers make money, linking some revenue to publishing costs instead of access. Libraries shift a portion of what they were paying in subscription fees to cover article processing charges journals impose on researchers for publishing open-access.
Through the work of the library and supporters of open access on campus, Iowa State is emerging as a leading proponent of open-access publishing. The library, with support of the Faculty Senate Executive Committee, was one of the first U.S. institutions to sign on to OA2020 expression of interest, whose 136 signatories are committed to redirecting subscription spending towards open access. It's a fitting stance for a land-grant institution with a mission to share the knowledge it creates with Iowa and the rest of the world, Brundy said.
"We'd like to see the research we do, and the knowledge we create, improve society and have maximum impact," he said. "But our impact and reach are limited when publishers require our faculty to sign over their copyright and then place their articles behind a paywall."
While transformative agreements are becoming more common in Europe, they're still rare in North America. Iowa State has one of the few such deals, with De Gruyter, which provides read access to 275 journals while covering the open-access publishing costs for up to 21 articles per year from ISU researchers.
Reaching a transformative agreement that advances open access with Elsevier is especially difficult, Brundy said. Research consortiums in Germany, Norway and Sweden have walked away from their Elsevier deals after failing to negotiate transformative open access agreements. In February, the University of California system did the same.
The state Board of Regents universities negotiate as a group with Elsevier, and talks recently began. Due to cost concerns, the University of Northern Iowa dropped its Elsevier contract in the last negotiation, which produced a three-year deal that in 2018 cost Iowa State $2.6 million for access to about 3,800 journals via ScienceDirect (a few hundred of which are open-access). It's far too soon to say how negotiations will go, but Brundy said moving from a big deal to individual subscriptions and agreements that support open-access publishing will be options.
“The negotiation climate is changing, giving us a real opportunity to achieve our goals of financial stability, while improving transparency and open access,” he said.