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The High Cost of Scholarly Publications

by Kimberley Barker on 2019-01-25T11:32:00-05:00 | Comments

This article was written by Gretchen Arnold, and edited by Kimberley Barker.

     Today we enjoy access to a wealth of information which, only a few years ago, was beyond our imaginations.  This access has changed not only our personal lives but also our professional ones, as the vast amount of scholarly information that is now constantly available has positively impacted research and clinical care.  Those few years ago it was not uncommon to have to request copies of articles from journals that the library did not own and the wait time for those copies could be days or even weeks, depending on the location of the lending library. The Internet changed all of that, making it possible for journals to be digitized and aggregated into online databases.  Because of that technological advancement, we now enjoy instantaneous and seamless access to much of the world’s research.  

     In parallel with the growth of the Internet, scholarly publishing evolved from small individual companies to a major industry.  Through mergers and acquisitions, the entire scholarly publishing industry came to be controlled by a handful of highly profitable international conglomerates.  The business model underpinning this industry (which yields profit margins of around 40% for the top firms) relies on the intellectual contributions of higher education institutions: faculty produce the content (the articles which are published) and also provide peer review and editorial services for that content.  Taxpayers also finance these research publications by way of grant support and state-supported universities.  Here at the University of Virginia, it is estimated that UVA faculty-produced articles account for up to $2.5 million in revenue for Elsevier, one of the largest publishers in the industry.  Coincidentally, this is approximately what UVA paid Elsevier in subscription fees in 2017-2018.

     Many faculty may not realize that academic libraries pay a steep and ever-growing price to provide ubiquitous access to research and clinical journals.  In the old model of library acquisitions, librarians subscribed to individual journals on a title-by-title basis.  Subscription decisions were made based on relevance to user needs and cost considerations; in this way, journals could be added or eliminated annually, based on local needs.  With the advent of online publications and aggregate databases, publishers completely changed this model to one that is known as the “Big Deal”.  Under the “Big Deal” model, academic libraries were presented with a largely all-or-nothing proposition: thousands of journals were packaged into bundles and licensed to libraries in multiple-year contracts with set price increases which average 5% annually.  The “up” side of this deal is that library users gained access to many more titles than libraries would typically have been able to afford on a title-by-title basis.  The “downside” is that libraries lost control of their acquisition budgets by agreeing to set steep price increases annually and by eliminating any local flexibility to tailor collections to institutional needs. Most library acquisition budgets (meant to fund purchases of ALL resources, not just online journals) are increasingly consumed by these Big Deals.  Further, with fixed annual price increases, the typical Big Deal will cost 20-25% more within the span of the license agreement.

     This is unsustainable.  Nationally and internationally, universities are engaged in serious discussions about the long-term implications of these agreements.  Here in the Commonwealth of Virginia, librarians and academic leaders from the major state-supported universities are considering options which will ensure access to essential research information- and which will do so in a way that is financially sound.  This is no longer simply a library issue; it is an issue for the entirety of higher education and therefore needs input and support from faculty.  

     Leading this effort at UVA is John Unsworth, Director of UVA University Libraries. John has prepared a short presentation for faculty and administrators that describes the current situation surrounding the Big Deal and its future implications.  This presentation serves as the first of several communications which will be forthcoming from Unsworth and his team, the purposes of which are to raise awareness, and to galvanize faculty and staff support for some potentially difficult (but important) decision-making in the future.  

     If you have questions about the Big Deal or how it impacts the Health Sciences Library’s resources, please contact me, Gretchen Arnold; Director, Claude Moore Health Sciences Library; gvn8r@virginia.edu. I would be happy to speak with you.

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