Virginia research libraries address upcoming Elsevier negotiations

On Oct. 2, deans from seven Virginia research libraries (VRL) discussed their guiding principles ahead of upcoming, joint contract negotiations with Elsevier, a major publisher of academic journals. During a Sustainable Scholarship Virtual Forum, they explained their views about the scholarly communications ecosystem, the unsustainable cost of accessing Elsevier’s journals, and their shared goal to promote equity, accessibility, and affordability of information resources. 

The seven VRL institutions represented on the panel (University of Virginia, William & Mary, Old Dominion University, Virginia Commonwealth University, James Madison University, Virginia Tech, and George Mason University) have been buying so-called journal “big deals” together for almost twenty years. Since the turn of the century, big deals—bundles of journal subscriptions that include many unwanted titles—have increasingly consumed a large portion of libraries’ collections budgets. When the VRL group signed its last contract with Elsevier in 2016, they began preparing for a paradigm shift.  

Virginia research librarians knew they could not fulfill their full mission as long as they spent a large and increasing part of their budget on just a few vendors and their big deals.  They started the conversation, meeting with their university presidents, provosts, researchers, graduate students and undergraduate students to discuss the broken system and what they hoped to change. 

Equitable access to research 

Carrie Cooper, library dean at William & Mary, discussed the importance of equitable access to research as part of the ethos of librarianship. She stressed the importance of public institutions ensuring research is accessible so that it can have the most impact.  As she said, “Access to knowledge improves and saves lives, and high pay walls are a barrier to that access.”  

As an example, she talked about how the COVID-19 pandemic showed that the scholarly research community can come together to bring down walls and make resources freely available that have not been available to all in the past. This is an opportunity to learn from this process and make equitable access the norm. 

Diversity in our collections and in scholarly publishing 

John Unsworth, library dean at University of Virginia, warned against the effects of budget consuming big deals, in essence allowing the publishers to dictate what libraries hold in their collection instead of having the space to be uniquely attuned to the interests of their research communities. He urged libraries to take approval plans off autopilot and ensure that libraries build the collections their communities want and need. 

He highlighted that while there is a core set of journal titles that Virginia universities need, that set is probably closer to 300 than 2000. Virginia universities support a diverse range of research interests, and that collectively they do not have a shared profile of faculty interests or research aims. 

Reasonable cost 

Bethany Nowviskie, James Madison University library dean, discussed how costs associated with access to scholarly work should be “reasonable.” Highlighting the impact of price inflation and a monopolistic system that has “lost touch with reality,” Nowviskie shared that the price of the bundles no longer has a real relationship to the vendors' actual costs to produce these digital journals, nor to any extra value they provide. The value of scholarly journals comes from the authors and researchers themselves, and from volunteer peer reviewers and editors who offer their time and work to the system too.                

She shared staggering figures on the profit margin that private companies have extracted from cash-strapped public institutions – with 30 to 40% profit margins for top vendors, well above what investors make from companies like Apple or Google. 

How do you decide what to keep and what to cut from subscription packages, which resources are valuable? 

In discussing the decision process for subscription packages, Tyler Walters, library dean at Virginia Tech, reminded the audience that subscriptions are just one way of providing access. Two metrics libraries consider in assessing a journal’s value to their research community is the number of article downloads and the citation rates. 

The data among VRL is showing that there are hundreds of journals that are little used or not used at all. Communication is key in working with faculty to understand journal publishing, the literature in their fields and what titles are most important to them. There is a lot of data that goes into this. The group has not yet determined how many titles they will end up having, considering usage, cost, and interest. The data so far seems to indicate that the libraries can provide what their communities need a far smaller cost. 

How will I be able to access big deal content if it’s cancelled? 

Following up on Walters’ point about subscriptions being only one of several lawful means to access scholarly materials, Stuart Frazer, Old Dominion University library dean, emphasized the commitment of VRL – collectively and as individual libraries – to meet the research needs of faculty and students using a broader array of methods while achieving more effective cost operations.

Even if an agreement is not reached with Elsevier, libraries will retain the online access to previous issues already purchased. However, there are many alternative methods of access, such as: interlibrary loan, open access journals and repositories, and on-demand purchasing. 

How does the libraries’ effort to change the landscape relate to the incentives in promotion and tenure? 

Butler returned to Nowviskie for a robust discussion of this point and needed reforms to the entire system. She urged faculty to consider removing journal-based metrics from discipline-based research evaluation in order to promote a wider array of publishing options, scholarly innovation, and a more sustainable ecosystem, controlled by the scholarly community. Nowviskie shared that the system can’t change without buy-in from all parties contributing to it.

Will libraries changing their approach undermine the funding models of smaller publishers, scholarly societies, etc? 

Unsworth doesn’t see it that way. The resources libraries currently commit to the big deal could be diversified to independent publishers that are scholar-led and support the research community rather than supporting a commercial entity.  The open scholarship community is expanding as more want to pivot to more sustainable models.   

COVID/Budget Crunch - longer-term effects? 

John Zenelis, library dean at George Mason University, remarked on the constraints library budgets were facing prior to the pandemic and the additional cuts likely to come as the pandemic continues. Fiscal realities are now compelling libraries to restructure and balance budgets while meeting their communities’ needs. The current situation has accelerated and made urgent the pre-existing need to make changes. 

He stressed that most, if not all, are now faced with the stark reality of significantly diminished budgets. Conversely, the demand for scholarly, scientific resources and associated services is not diminishing, but growing.  

How does the Big Deal relate to other Elsevier products or content? 

Teresa Knott, library dean at Virginia Commonwealth University, painted a picture of the broader ecosystem – that this is beyond one deal with one publisher. In her words, “Scholarship is shaped by metrics we use to evaluate scholars, and by controlling metrics, vendors are given an outside influence on the trajectory of research itself.”  

So what’s a sustainable future look like? 

Cooper asked forum attendees to imagine a more sustainable future – with some examples - and again emphasized the values of equitable access, diverse collections, and fair costs. 

The panel then took additional questions from the audience. A key line throughout all of the discussion was that any changes the libraries are considering do not take access away but make access available through different channels. They repeatedly stated their commitment to making resources available to those that need them.

Towards the close of the event, Butler invited two guest participants to share their insights and experiences. Nerea Llamas, Associate University Librarian for Collections Strategy and Services, University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill, shared about UNC’s path to cutting their contact and exploring alternative access pathways. David Carlson, Dean of University Libraries, Texas A&M, weighed in on the experience of being a university library entering the terrain of negotiations.

For more information, watch a recording of the full forum.