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Journal subscriptions and ‘big deals’.

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The Library has over 1200 active subscriptions including print and electronic journals, academic databases, specialist e-resources, and other ongoing fees. Our largest subscriptions - often known as ‘big deals’ - consist of bundles of sometimes hundreds of journal subscriptions. These tend to be with the major academic publishers.

We have big deals with:

  • ScienceDirect (Elsevier)
  • Wiley
  • Taylor & Francis
  • Springer Compact
  • SAGE
  • IEEE
  • Nature (Springer)
  • Oxford University Press
  • American Chemical Society
  • Royal Society of Chemistry
  • Emerald
  • Cambridge University Press
  • Institute of Physics
  • American Physical Society
  • American Institute of Physics
  • Cell Press (Elsevier) 

Our 16 largest big deal journal subscriptions account for c.50% of our overall subscriptions budget. The ScienceDirect subscription (Elsevier) is by far our largest.

Big deals provide access to large amounts of content but included in these bundles is a lot of material that has limited use. For example the Taylor & Francis ‘big deal’ contains around 4,200 titles of which 275 account for 50% of usage. There are over 500 titles that were read only once or not at all by users of our subscription last year. In the ScienceDirect (Elsevier) big deal 450 journals account for 75% of the usage out of a bundle of 1850.

Publishers use this expanded content to justify the high cost and the consistent above inflation price rises. They are also motivated to increase the number of titles in a package to charge more. They do this by splitting existing journals into multiple, separate titles and by launching new titles. This has seen a massive proliferation of journals and the subsequent - and arguably damaging - development of journal metrics to deal with the expansion.

The Library does not negotiate alone for these big deals. They are national deals negotiated by Jisc on behalf of the whole sector. Jisc attempts to ensure pricing based on institutional size and standardised licences. Increasingly, the big deals are being converted to transitional or Read and Publish deals that seek to combine traditional subscription spend with money spent on Gold OA. Jisc leads negotiations and presents institutions such as ours the opportunity to feedback on the direction of negotiations.

What does a good deal look like?

The traditional model of academic publishing saw research published in paywalled (subscription) journals that required a subscription to access. This is research that is generally funded by public money, carried out and written up by university academics, peer-reviewed (without payment) by university academics and then published for profit by academic publishers. This model of publishing has been challenged by the Plan S coalition, whose signatories include many funders such as UKRI, the Wellcome Trust and EU. Plan S seeks to make the outputs of publicly funded research immediately available for free to the public.  

However, while the mechanisms of academic publishing and prestige are controlled by commercial interest, the push for Open Access has had the unintended consequence of pushing up the price of research. Alongside the traditional subscription model publishers now charge Article Processing Charges (APCs) to make individual articles available open access which has in effect created another revenue stream for the publishers. They are now paid twice (so called ‘double-dipping’) to make the same piece of research available - once by the library for the subscription, and once by the researcher or funder for the APC. This is research that is given to the publisher for free. As the cost of APCs has grown it has not been accompanied by a reduction in subscription costs.

Libraries are looking for deals that convert larger and larger proportions of research to immediate open access in keeping with the principles of Plan S including the use of Rights Retention Statements. The ultimate aim is to move the publishers away from a business model that relies on, in essence, taking content hostage and ransoming it back to researchers through their libraries, to one where publishers offer transparent, reasonably priced, value added services around open access content. Negotiating this transition is troublesome, especially as publishers have come to rely on large profit margins but libraries are seeking deals that drive towards this objective. They are looking for deals that convert larger and larger proportions of research to open access in keeping with the principles of Plan S, restrain costs and transparently demonstrate how public money is being spent.


Related information

Current Elsevier negotiations

Open access agreements: Jisc and Elsevier negotiations video

Open Access web pages

Content strategy


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