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.
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?
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.
- 2014.04.24. Elsevier journals — some facts by Timothy Gowers
- 2014.04.24. FOI request reveals costs of Elsevier subscriptions by Brian Owens
- 2014.04.24. Gowers publishes Elsevier spend by SCONUL
- 2014.04.24. The Cost of Academic Publishing by Michelle Brook
- 2014.04.24. Academics investigate Big Deals by Jonathan Rochkind
- 2014.04.24. Library Spend on Journal Big Deals by RLUK
- 2014.04.24. Cost of Elsevier journals by university enrolment by Zen Faulkes
- 2014.04.25. The Cost of Academic Publishing by Michelle Brook
- 2014.04.25. How to negotiate with Elsevier by Mike Taylor
- 2014.04.25. More Elsevier Bad Press by University of Saskatchewan Library
- 2014.04.25. The Cost of Knowledge; Tim Gowers’ amazing analysis of Elsevier’s income by Peter Murray-Rust
- 2014.04.28. An Infographic View of Gowers’s Elsevier Exposé by Rob Walsh
- 2014.04.28. Cambridge Univeristy VC Says Elsevier Are Rich Enough Already by Richard Taylor
- 2014.04.28. Open Access, Institutionalised?: Or, Another Reason Why International Relations Is Failing As An Intellectual Project by Pablo K
- 2014.04.29. Worth Reading: Elsevier Costs, Funding OA, Peer Review Platforms, A Publishing Story by Philip Young
- 2014.04.29. Strategic Thinking Exercise — Who Is Positioned to Keep Gold Open Access Growing? by Kent Anderson
- 2014.04.29. The Color-Coded Tiers of Open Access by The Scinder
- 2014.04.30. Gowers publishes Elsevier spend by IATUL
- 2014.05.01. Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University speaks out on Elsevier and Open Access by Sal Robinson
- 2014.05.01. Transparency: A bit of grin and bear it, a bit of come and share it… by Catriona MacCallum
- 2014.05.03. Elsevier again, and collective action by Dave Bacon
- 2014.05.05. Test your intuition (22): Selling Two Items in a Bundle. by Gil Kilai
- 2014.05.13. Les revues Elsevier – quelques faits by Etienne Cavalié (Translation into French of Gowers original
- 2014.05.16. The cost of scientific publishing: update and call for action by Tom Olijhoek
- 2014.05.16. Elsevier Journals - The QMUL Formula by Edward F. Hughes
- 2014.05.20. To Open Access, then Beyond by @p_gl
- 2014.05.21. Elsevier in Australia by Scott Morrison
- 2014.05.27. Elsevier as a Symbol of the Greater Whole by Emily Rae Aldridge
- 2014.06.04. Les chiffres Elsevier: et donc? by Etienne Cavalié
- 2014.06.04. Elsevier: le juste prix ou qui veut gagner des millions?
- 2014.06.05. Open Access Sector News April-May 2014 by Torsten Reimer
- 2014.06.05. Official Information Act requests in the style of Tim Gowers by Mark C. Wilson
- 2014.06.16. Evaluating big deal journal bundles by Theodore C. Bergstrom, Paul N. Courant, R. Preston McAfee, and Michael A. Williams (OA version, supplemental data)
- 2014.06.16. An important new study by Theodore C. Bergstrom, Paul N. Courant, R. Preston McAfee, and Michael A. Williams by Peter Suber
- 2014.06.16. Universities 'get poor value' from academic journal-publishing firms by Ian Sample
- 2014.06.17. Researchers find some universities are getting poor value from bundled academic journal publishers by Bob Yirka
- 2014.06.17. Study Finds Major Inconsistencies in Journal Pricing by Inside Higher Ed
- 2014.06.17. Your university is definitely paying too much for journals by Bjoern Brembs
- 2014.06.17. Around the Web: Your university is definitely paying too much for journals by John Dupuis
- 2014.06.18. Is your big deal a good deal? by Meredith Farkas
- 2014.06.18. Elsevier et al’s pricing douchebaggery exposed by J. Nunez-Iglesias
- 2014.06.18. Journal Price Tags Revealed by Jef Akst
- 2014.06.20. Secret bundles of profit by John Bohannon
- 2014.06.23. Shocking Secrets Revealed! What Big Libraries Pay for Big Deals by Barbara Fister
- 2014.06.25. Current Cites June 2014 edited by Roy Tennant
- 2014.06.26. Secret publishing deals exposed by Chris Woolston
- 2014.06.26. A small object lesson about the scholarly communication ecosystem by Jenica Rogers
- 2014.06.29. Elsevier and other academic publishers still gouging libraries by Jerry A. Coyne
- 2014.07.01. Open access update June 2014 by Australian Open Access Support Group
- 2014.07.08. The numbers they didn’t want you to see: study finds that academic publishers basically charge whatever they feel like by Sal Robinson
- 2014.08.12. Secrets of journal subscription prices: For-profit publishers charge libraries two to three times more than non-profits by Ted Bergstrom
- 2014.08.15. Elsevier, ISI, and “The Cost of Knowledge” by Ken Gonzales
- 2014.09.xx. Cites & Insights, September 2014: Intersections: Some Notes on Elsevier by Walt Crawford
- 2014.09.09. University of Alberta Libraries Statement of Principle on Non-Disclosure Clauses in Licences
- 2014.09.30. The cost of subscription publishing by Stuart Lawson
- 2014.10.xx. Stuart Lawson FOI requests to UK universities and some responses
- 2014.10.01. Peak Subscription by Michael Clarke
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?