Big-deal packages squeeze recession-hit libraries

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More funding cuts and rising subscription prices mean librarians worldwide have yet to see the worst of the recession, reports Rebecca Pool from this year's UKSG conference in Edinburgh

Despite international news reports claiming that the economy is creeping out of recession, librarians worldwide are bracing themselves for more tough times. Speaking at this year’s UKSG conference, Jill Taylor-Roe of Newcastle University claimed: ‘We’ll see more belt-tightening from 2010 onwards, we’ve gone beyond efficiency savings and are getting into the pain zone now... expect real pain in 2011.’

Taylor-Roe is head of Liaison, Academic Services and Special Collections at the UK university and also manages her library’s resource budgets. As she pointed out, her institution has seen a dramatic reduction in new journal subscriptions, has already ‘cut databases back to the bone’ and is still experiencing funding cuts. Like her peers in other large academic libraries, she is contemplating information resources cuts and believes that book deals could crumble across many institutions in 2011.

So why the bleak outlook? Throughout 2009 and 2010, libraries have been and will be relying on ‘special funds’ to compensate for budget reductions. Come 2011, however, these reserves will be gone.

And librarians expect publishers to still raise prices by five per cent at the same time as university departments are beginning to complain that depleted collections are compromising research. As Taylor-Roe said: ‘Libraries just can’t cope with this.’

The big-deal effect

A key part of the problem for many librarians is publishers’ so-called big deals. With the advent of online publishing, many universities started purchasing their subscriptions from large publishers in the form of bundled site licences. These can allow electronic access to nearly all of a publisher’s subscription list at a price that depends on historical expenditure on print journals from that publisher.

But while bundling electronic journals with print subscriptions provides researchers with extra access to journals, many librarians now find the long-term contract lock-ins inflexible – Elsevier, for one, provides a five-year package. Librarians are struggling with the sustained price increases of print subscriptions. Indeed, a significant proportion of librarians – some 50 per cent of those at the UKSG meeting – claimed to be unhappy with their big-deal set-up.

Taylor-Roe believes that ‘sustainable pricing’ in today’s economic climate is now crucial. ‘We need reasonable per article pricing,’ she asserted. ‘This could be the answer to the big deal.’

But, as she also highlighted, thanks to librarians’ rainy day funds, institutions haven’t yet had to cancel print subscriptions. ‘So far, we’ve had a lot of talk but less change,’ she said. ‘Publishers are market sensitive but unless subscriptions are cancelled, they won’t make changes themselves.’

Ted Bergstrom, an economist from the University of California, Santa Barbara, made his views on publishers’ big deals clear at this year’s conference. ‘Drop big-deal subscriptions from over-priced publishers and only keep reasonable contracts,’ he said. ‘The academic publishing sector is a monopolists’ paradise. For example, [the big deal] has allowed Elsevier to increase prices by seven per cent, and amidst past budgetary increases of typically 3.5 per cent, libraries continually find themselves in cancelling mode.’

As he pointed out, the median price per article from a ‘for-profit’ publisher is between three and four times more than that of a non-profit business. Like Taylor-Roe, he advocates using a price system in which the user should pay for what he or she wants. ‘In the case of journals, who is better placed than the academic to decide article value?’ he asked.

Bergstrom also highlighted how librarians worldwide are paying different prices for similar subscriptions. Before the big deal, publishers charged the same institutional subscription price for print subscriptions to all libraries.

Today, future prices and access vary according to the historical expenditure of an institution as well as its current cancellations. And subscriptions prices largely depend on the skill and persistence of a library’s bargaining.

Incensed by these highly variable contracts, Bergstrom and colleagues have been collecting samples of big-deal contracts from libraries across the USA in a bid to understand their long-term economic implications. Nine publishers have been targeted; Elsevier, Springer, Emerald, Wiley, Sage, American Chemical Society, Taylor&Francis, Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press.

As Bergstrom pointed out, while many big-deal contracts signed by universities have confidentiality clauses stating a library must not share contract information, most US states have ‘open record laws’ invalidating these clauses and requiring that state institutions make such contracts publicly available. Indeed, an attempt by Elsevier to sue Washington State University and block the release of a detailed copy of their contract was over-ruled.

As an insight, Bergstrom claimed that the University of Wisconsin only pays 60 per cent of what the University of Michigan pays for an Elsevier package. ‘There are big differences in what universities are paying and it is clear that bargaining has a big pay-off,’ he asserted. ‘We now have the prices paid by hundreds of universities to Elsevier and will soon release summary information showing those who pay more.’

Sustainable pricing

Given the unease over big-deal contracts and anxieties around the coming, cash-strapped years, librarians need respite. US-based not-for-profit society publisher, SPIE, is one business that claims to have listened to its customers and has dropped subscription rates for its digital library by 10 per cent.

Prior to 2010, its institutional business model comprised a tiered subscription rate based on print price; the greater a library’s number of subscriptions, the higher the discount. But according to the publisher’s director of digital library sales and business development, Marybeth Manning, the organisation realised its model was complex and has opted for what is described as a ‘more sustainable pricing strategy’.

‘We had 33 per cent growth in subscriptions from 2008 to 2009 and a 99 per cent renewal rate,’ explained Manning. ‘But anecdotal evidence was that prices were high and we couldn’t ignore the economic state... Librarians face huge budget reductions and we want to hold onto our current subscribers in this extremely turbulent period.’

Manning set out to review the business’ key performance indicators. After a year-long study she concluded that while the original business model was acceptable and understood, it was less suited to smaller institutions, and institutions with limited engineering programmes.

‘We considered price discounts but this is not equitable to current subscribers. [Similarly] a price freeze would be no good for newcomers,’ she said. ‘So we decided to offer a 10 per cent reduction on subscriptions to full SPIE and topical collections to reach new business and hold onto our customers.’

And to date, the new business strategy is working. So far the 99 per cent renewal rate has been maintained, the publisher has only lost one consortium deal and has attracted new business since it announced its subscription cuts in June 2009. The organisation also intends to hold its price decreases as long as demand remains stable and new business continues.

Room to socialise

The majority of librarians have yet to discover an online tool that can foster international communications and extend global collaboration for them. Lucy Power joined the Oxford Internet Institute, UK, several years ago to study the impact of internet technologies on the practice of life science. One online networking tool that she believes has made a remarkable difference to life scientists, and is ripe for adoption by librarians, is FriendFeed.

Lucy Power believes FriendFeed can help collaboration.

The facility allows its users to track the online activities of ‘friends’ across a broad range of social networks including blogs, Twitter and Flickr. And as Power pointed out at the UKSG meeting, life scientists have used the tool to discuss science, solve problems, secure funding, collaborate, report on conferences and even write grant applications. She believes friendfeed could prove instrumental to librarians, especially as online collaboration becomes more and more crucial.

‘I’ve seen US librarians feed tweets using FriendFeed,’ she said. ‘Many connections with the US information management librarianship community just wouldn’t have happened without it.’

Digital repository librarian for the US-based University of Wisconsin, and well-known blogger, Dorothea Salo, agreed. ‘The Literacy Services of Wisconsin are on FriendFeed and use it to communicate with each other,’ she said. ‘It also acts as a fantastic marketing tool and we’ve received a lot of publicity as a result.’