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US universities review subscriptions to journal “package deals” as costs rise

BMJ 2004; 328 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.328.7431.68 (Published 09 January 2004) Cite this as: BMJ 2004;328:68
  1. Susan Mayor
  1. London

    US university libraries are cancelling “package deal” subscriptions—in which they buy a “bundle” of academic journals and online journal access from the publisher Elsevier—on the grounds that they are too expensive.

    Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts, recently announced that from 1 January 2004 it was stopping its subscription with Elsevier for a bundled package of journals. Instead, the library will purchase journals on a title by title basis.

    The decision followed more than a year of negotiations between Harvard and other members of the Northeast Research Libraries Consortium and Elsevier to agree more flexible licensing terms for subscribing to journals. Elsevier offers its journals in what are termed “big deals”—contracts in which libraries pay for a package of journals and online access to a publisher's journals for several years, with restrictions on early cancellation. Harvard found that some of the journals in the package were rarely used—more than 20% of Elsevier titles were used less than twice a month, and 10% were used less than once a month.

    Sidney Verba, director of the University Library at Harvard, said in a letter accompanying the announcement: “Bundling has created an artificial environment that sustains journals that might otherwise not be viable on their own. By cancelling these little-used materials, funds will become available to acquire resources that are in higher demand.” He added: “Elsevier is among a handful of journal publishers whose commercial bundling practices are squeezing library budgets. Their licensing programmes require libraries to maintain large, fixed levels of expenditure, without the ability to cancel unneeded subscriptions.” He hoped that cancelling the journal package deal would allow the library to regain control of journal subscriptions in a way that responded to the university's academic and research needs (seehttp://hul.harvard.edu/letter040101.html).

    Cornell University Library, in Ithaca, New York, decided last month not to renew its subscription with Elsevier for a bundled package of more than 900 journals. Library administrators said that they could no longer justify paying an increasing price each year for Elsevier's bundle of journals, when a substantial number of titles in the package of 930 online and print journals were hardly used by staff. They pointed out that, although these titles represented less than 2% of the total number of journals to which Cornell library subscribed, the $1.7m (£0.94m; €1.3m) contract with Elsevier for the bundle amounted to more than a fifth of the library's total journal subscription costs. The University Senate wanted the library to work with the faculty to reduce this to 15%.

    A third US university—Stanford University in California—is currently considering a draft resolution on the bundling of journals and is expected make a decision in February.

    Marike Westra, manager of external communications at Elsevier, said: “Some universities are facing severe financial constraints. We are working closely with them to come to satisfactory arrangements. Elsevier provides many options to tailor the content of journal subscriptions, recognising that needs change.” She added that despite the recent cases in the United States, “a good deal of contract renewals are going well.”

    Footnotes

    • Competing interests The BMJ Publishing Group is a small to medium sized publisher that profits from the current market but is threatened by the large publishers.

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