Library reaches deal with Elsevier to lower journal costs

An Iowa State negotiation team reached an agreement this spring to end a "big deal" with the largest publisher of scholarly journals, instead subscribing to hundreds of individual journals from Elsevier to lower costs significantly.

Selecting 428 journals to retain in a year-by-year contract also gives the university library more control over future journal spending, said Curtis Brundy, associate university librarian for scholarly communication and collections. It has become more common for university libraries to reject "big deal" contracts to avoid the rising costs of the all-inclusive subscription packages favored by major journal publishers. 

The new contract is both a departure and a standardization for the library, Brundy said. 

"We've already done this with the other major publisher agreements, as costs have become unsustainable," he said. Iowa State has already taken an individual-journal approach with Wiley and Springer Nature.

"Providing access to cutting-edge work across many disciplines -- including that of our own scholars --  is a critical responsibility of leading research universities like Iowa State," said senior vice president and provost Jonathan Wickert. "I applaud the library’s efforts to lower costs and to make sure we’re paying a fair price for the materials our students and faculty need to complete their work."

Deal's impact

The library selected which of Elsevier's roughly 2,000 journals to keep by considering criteria that included how frequently it publishes articles by Iowa State authors, article download and citation rates, open-access availability and subscription cost. In addition to the 428 subscribed journals, the campus community will continue to have access to past articles from several hundred other journals to which Iowa State has perpetual access rights, Brundy said.

In 2020, Elsevier will allow the library to swap some journals out of its subscription package if it wants to add new titles without raising its overall expenses, Brundy said. Faculty or staff who have questions about the agreement and the journals included can contact collections coordinator Ed Goedeken,

ISU students, faculty and staff can access Elsevier articles from journals not included in the new contract by requesting them through interlibrary loan, which aims to fulfill requests within one day. Libraries that step away from "big deal" arrangements don't typically see their interlibrary loan usage spike, Brundy said.

Comparing costs

The prior three-year agreement with Elsevier expired Dec. 31. The university library's three negotiating principles were to promote financial sustainability, transparency and open access, a movement supported by Iowa State to push more published research out from behind paywalls to be freely accessible online.

Reducing the cost of subscribing to Elsevier journals was important because it has been an uneven and growing share of the library's journal spending, Brundy said. In 2018, 22% of the citations of ISU research and, coincidentally, 22% of citations by Iowa State researchers were in Elsevier journals. Yet the Elsevier contract accounted for 41% of the library's journal costs.

"The trend line is scary," Brundy said at an open forum on the negotiations in January. "When we project this out, it really doesn't make sense and something has to give."

Changing market

In addition to being more financially viable, the new contract satisfies another negotiation goal by dropping nondisclosure requirements that were part of prior deals. The inability to disclose contract terms have made it difficult for libraries to compare their journal prices, allowing unfair differences to develop as publishers increased their "big deal" fees annually.

Many research libraries have taken firmer stands with large journal publishers in recent years in response to climbing costs. Some have walked away entirely, while other institutions have taken the same tack as Iowa State, subscribing to individual journals at a higher cost per title but spending less overall. Pushback from libraries has helped balance what in the past were one-sided negotiations, as publishers no longer can assume institutions will agree to pay more.

Faculty and student support

Last fall, the Faculty Senate passed a resolution supporting the library’s principles for journal publisher negotiations. Student Government and the Graduate and Professional Student Senate passed similar resolutions. The united effort was an important factor in the negotiation strategy with Elsevier.

The deal will not affect how or where ISU faculty publish research, said senate president Jonathan Sturm, a music professor. The negotiations were an important step in helping disrupt a publishing model at odds with the university's land-grant mission, he said.  

"How can we fulfill that mission if the research we access is locked behind a paywall that is exorbitantly expensive and unfairly priced relative to peers?" Sturm said. "Next steps may involve faculty discussion about academic publishing traditions. We need to adjust them so that progress happens in careers and research while faculty are increasingly encouraged to publish their research in respected journals or online sites that keep their discoveries open to the world.”

Pushing for open

Brundy said it’s still a challenge to find agreement on open access with the largest publishers. While ISU negotiators didn't secure any specific open-access concessions in its deal with Elsevier, both sides agreed to continue discussing the issue. Iowa State already has several open-access agreements with publishers:

  • This week, the university library announced a three-year agreement with the Public Library of Science that allows researchers to publish in its open-access journals without incurring article processing charges, the fees open journals charge to cover publishing costs. Beginning in July, Iowa State researchers can publish unlimited articles, and the library will pay a flat rate based on prior publication levels.
  • In a deal announced in January, the Iowa State, University of California system, Carnegie Mellon University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology libraries reached a joint agreement with the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) that gives the universities' faculty, staff and students full access to all ACM journals and provides immediate open access status to all ACM articles by authors from those institutions. The three-year agreement is the first transformative open-access deal for ACM, the largest computing society.
  • The university library signed a unique "read-publish-join" agreement with the American Physiological Society (APS) earlier this year, Brundy said. In addition to covering content access and open-access publication for Iowa State faculty, staff and students -- often referred to as a "read and publish" deal -- the agreement with APS would grant a free one-year society membership to each publishing Iowa State author. It's a model that could be appealing to small scholarly societies with declining membership, Brundy said.
  • In December, the library reached an agreement with Oxford University Press, the publisher's first read and publish open-access deal with a U.S. institution.
  • In May, the library announced read and publish agreements with both the Royal Society of Chemistry and the journal publisher Frontiers.
  • At the start of 2019, Iowa State signed a three-year read and publish agreement with De Gruyter, which at the time was the publisher's first U.S. deal of its kind.