what’s the big deal?

house of cards
photo by Erin Wilson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

I’ve been thinking about Big Deals again lately, particularly as there are more reports of institutions breaking them (and then later having to pick them up again) because the costs are unsustainable. It’s usually just the money that is the issue. No one has a problem with buying huge journal (and now book) bundles in general because they tend to be used heavily and reduce friction in the research process. No, it’s usually about the cost increases, which happen annually, generally at higher rates than library collections budgets increase. That’s not new.

The reality of breaking a Big Deal is not pleasant, and often does not result in cost savings without a severe loss of access to scholarly research. I’m  not at a research institution, and yet, every time I have run the numbers, our Big Deals still cost less than individual subscriptions to the titles that get used more than the ILL threshold, and even if I bump it up to, say, 20 downloads a year, we’re still better off paying for the bundle than list price for individual titles. I can only imagine this is even more true at R1 schools, though their costs are likely exponentially higher than ours and may be bearing a larger burden per FTE.

That gets at one factor of the Big Deal that is not good — the lack of transparency or equity in pricing. One publisher’s Big Deal pricing is based on your title list prior to the Big Deal, which can result in vastly different costs for different institutions for essentially the same content. Another publisher many years ago changed their pricing structure, and in more polite terms told my consortia at the time we were not paying enough (i.e. we had negotiated too good of a contract), and we would see hefty annual increases until we reached whatever amount they felt we should be paying. This is what happens in a monopoly, and scholarly publishing is a monopoly in practice if not in legal terms.

We need a different model (and Open Access as it is practiced now is not going to save us). I don’t know what it is, but we need to figure that out soon, because I am seeing the impending crash of some Big Deals, and the fallout is not going to be pretty.

ER&L 2010: Developing a methodology for evaluating the cost-effectiveness of journal packages

Speaker: Nisa Bakkalbasi

Journal packages offer capped price increases, access to non-subscribed content, and it’s easier to manage than title-by-title subscriptions. But, the economic downturn has resulted in even the price caps not being enough to sustain the packages.

Her library only seriously considers COUNTER reports, which is handy, since most package publishers provide them. They add to that the publisher’s title-by-title list price, as well as some subject categories and fund codes. Their analysis includes quantitative and qualitative variables using pivot tables.

In addition, they look at the pricing/sales model for the package: base value, subscribed/non-subscribed titles, cancellation allowance, price cap/increase, deep discount for print rate, perpetual/post-cancellation access rights, duration of the contract, transfer titles, and third-party titles.

So, the essential question is, are we paying more for the package than for specific titles (perhaps fewer than we currently have) if we dissolved the journal package?

She takes the usage reports for at least the past three years in order to look at trends, and excludes titles that are based on separate pricing models, and also excluded backfile usage if that was a separate purchase (COUNTER JR1a subtracted from JR1 – and you will need to know what years the publisher is calling the backfile). Then she adds list prices for all titles (subscribed & non-subscribed). Then, she calculates the cost-per-use of the titles, and uses the ILL cost (per the ILL department) as a threshold for possible renewals or cancellations.

The final decision depends on the base value paid by the library, the collection budget increase/decrease, price cap, and the quality/consistency of ILL service (money is not everything). This method is only about the costs, and it does not address the value of the resources to the users beyond what they may have looked at. There may be other factors that contributed to non-use.