Around the Web: Big Deals 'R Us, or, Libraries in the lobster pot

So what do I mean by Big Deals.

In the world of academic libraries, a Big Deal is when we subscribe to the electronic versions of all (or almost all) of a journal publisher's offerings. Usually for it to qualify as a Big Deal, the publisher in question is going to be one of the larger ones out there, like Elsevier or Springer or even a big society publisher like IEEE or the American Chemical Society. The whole idea of the Big Deal is that we should theoretically get a better price for a large volume commitment than for paying on an individual basis for just the ones we think we really want. Typically the negotiation process for these deals ends up with the library paying some hopefully fair and reasonable percentage more for the whole kit and kaboodle than we did for our previous selective holdings.

Which seems like a good idea at first blush -- and it often is a good deal for us and for our patrons who get access to lots of content that they might find useful -- but there are a few problems.

For example, we do often get stuck with the long tail of journals that are only very marginally useful to us and that end up with no or almost no usage. We're also stuck with the package as our users get used to all this wonderful access so it gets harder to negotiate good prices as the publishers begin to sense that it becomes harder and harder to walk away from these deals the longer we have them.

Though not impossible.

Which brings me to our current issue at hand -- pricing fairness and transparency.

You see, one of the issues with the Big Deals, as with many of the agreements between libraries and our vendors, is that we often sign pricing non-disclosure agreements, or NDAs. In other words, we negotiate the best deal we can and then we don't tell anybody what that is. In fact, while we're negotiating those deals, we don't know what anyone else has paid either for the same package so we really don't know how good a deal our Big Deal is. And since so many of the pricing structures of the Big Deals are based on historical spending with those publishers, the more you used to spend, the more you will spend. Effectively, the incremental amount you spend for the rest of the publisher's offerings gets you much more if you didn't used to have a lot. It's hard to tell how much resistance there has been historically by libraries to NDAs because it's all shrouded in secrecy. After all, who wants to talk about how much we've been historically shafted with people who may have been shafted less. The resistance is starting, but only just.

Which further brings us to the recent revelations by mathematician Timothy Gowers about the situation in the UK and Theodore C. Bergstrom, Paul N. Courant, R. Preston McAfee, and Michael A. Williams about the situation in the US. (Some other countries as well, see list below.)

Those faculty members, not librarians mind you, issued Freedom of Information requests to all or most university libraries in their jurisdictions asking for publisher Big Deal pricing information, the information normally protected by NDA, and published their findings.

And they are quite shocking, to say the least. I won't recap it all here because the details are available in links below, but I will say that there is a dramatic and shocking discrepancy in what different institutions pay for the same content. So yes, the NDAs seem to work. The big publishers are able to extract more from us because we have less information about the negotiations than they do.

And thus the problem is one of collective action. We are like the proverbial lobsters in a pot, the water boils, the price rises, but we don't notice the gradual rise until we're dead, and then it's kind of too late. And to extend the culinary metaphor, there's a chicken and egg thing going on here too. How and why and when and where do we jump start collective action?

But those are rants from another day.

I've gone on long enough but before I close I will note Walt Crawford's Big-Deal Serial Purchasing: Tracking the Damage for an overview of the situation. Wayne Bivens-Tatum has some commentary here as well.

Also very relevant is investment adviser Claudio Aspesi's leaked advice to the industry, Reed Elsevier: Goodbye to Berlin - The Fading Threat of Open Access (Upgrade to Market-Perform). The message is basically that the open access/scholarly communications community is currently unable to come to any sort of effective collective action, so the big journal vendors, including Elsevier, will continue to reap both substantial subscription income as well as growing author processing charges. In other, they win and we lose. At least for now. The Loon has some cogent commentary on this as well. And the experience at Oklahoma University is also instructive.



And as is my wont, I'll end with a chronological account of the recent Big Deal revelations. If I've missed anything significant please let me know in the comments or at jdupuis at yorku dot ca. I've bolded the two major sources of data and information to make them easier to find.


I note the October Freedom of Information requests made by Stuart Lawson to various UK universities. As far as I know, no one has done this for Canadian universities, either for Elsevier or for journal publishers more generally. Who's up to it, I wonder.

Let's do this. Any takers?

More like this