Virginia libraries negotiate new contract with Elsevier 

By Tami Back, W&M Libraries

Six members of the Virginia Research Libraries (VRL) recently completed contract negotiations with Elsevier, the largest publisher of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) scholarly journals. Through a new one-year 2021 agreement, the University of Virginia, Virginia Tech, Virginia Commonwealth University, George Mason University, Old Dominion University, William & Mary, and James Madison University libraries addressed their priorities for affordability, accessibility, and equity.  

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Virginia’s research libraries were moving toward a new contract with Elsevier beginning in 2022. Due to the pandemic’s negative effect on operating budgets, the group asked to renegotiate its last year of the current five-year contract. VRL appreciates Elsevier’s willingness to modify the agreement a year early in light of budget needs. The library group will be back at the negotiating table in 2021 to pen a longer-term agreement. 

What does this new one-year agreement with Elsevier mean? 

Cost savings 

Most of the Virginia research libraries involved in the negotiation are experiencing budget shortfalls for 2021 and projecting budget shortfalls for 2022. Each institution involved reduced its overall spend for the year, balancing its COVID-distressed budget for 2021. For W&M Libraries, the Elsevier contract was 12% of its collection budget, making it the libraries’ largest subscription-based contract. By participating in this re-negotiation, W&M Libraries was able to reduce expected spend for FY21 by more than 55%. The savings will fund alternative pathways to access (Interlibrary Loan and article pay-per- view), and support for open access publishing.

Journal selection criteria

The new agreement frees the institutions from the “Big Deal” Freedom Collection, allowing for a collection that better suits users’ needs. The new subscription list includes only titles that are consistently used by our users. Also, we are free to cancel subscriptions at any time if they are not used. This is part of a longer-term effort to realign investments in favor of tools and resources that are more affordable, equitable, and sustainable. And it allows the libraries to build a more tailored collection from more diverse vendors that better service evolving needs of their universities. 

The libraries selected titles for the agreement based on download data, article citations by institutional authors, open access availability of articles, articles published by institutional authors, and faculty and library liaison input, while also attempting to reduce duplication of title purchases across institutions. The group also analyzed the projected costs of alternative access to those titles.


Researchers will continue to have access to everything they need to do their research. Subscriptions are just one mode of access to research, and our libraries are committed to helping researchers navigate alternatives.

The Virginia research libraries are confident that they can meet demand through existing subscriptions, backfile content, open access journals and repositories, and interlibrary loan services including article purchase. Recently, the Virtual Library of Virginia (VIVA) invested in an improved interlibrary loan service for all Virginia public institutions that will decrease turnaround time and lower costs.

“We have fast and robust networks to borrow and lend content with other libraries through interlibrary loan,” said Laura C. Morales, interim associate dean of collections and content services for W&M. “When researchers can’t wait for interlibrary loan, we will purchase access for them at the article level.”

In addition to accessing articles, the new agreement clarified privacy provisions and broadened the university community’s rights to allow for text and data mining of the scholarly materials. 

What’s next? 

The Virginia research libraries will be working with other big publishers to take similar steps toward a more sustainable scholarly communications ecosystem in the coming year. They will continue watching how resources are used, including the demand for alternative access, and use that knowledge to inform next year’s negotiations with Elsevier.