The Rock and the Hard Place (Part 1): Renewal Season, No Big Deal?

The following is the first in a series of posts on the subscription-based model and open access alternatives, and how each get stuck from their respective ends of the scholarly information supply chain.  As a reminder: Opinions expressed here are my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer or of ACRL.

September is renewal season when the largest percentage of a typical academic library’s collection budget is committed to the hands of publishers and vendors, thereby determining the largest part of what research is accessible in January of the following year.  This four-month lag between getting what you paid for is just one of the many problematic examples of the slow-churning scholarly information supply chain.

Here’s another.

These problems have been raised by a crisis of economic sustainability most commonly blamed on the serial subscription model.  The movement toward remedying this problem, however, often comes from the perspective of authors, copyright, and open access.  I think shedding light on some of the practical economics at play in the subscription renewal process can help show where both the subscription model and open access movement get stuck in this process, and may reveal ways to join forces for change.

“No big deal…”

In the grand scheme of the subscription renewal process, four months is not really too much to ask considering a subscription vendor must have time to process its multitude of customers’ orders from a further multitude of publishers, and all by the start of the calendar year. In a typical renewal year library staff must also build in sufficient advance processing time to meet that September deadline.  Accounting for fiscal close, data gathering and normalization, as well as faculty review and input, means renewals can require anywhere from 9 to 12 months of advance preparation.  Without any problems you might have a 3-month breather between January and March before the full cycle of renewal processing begins again.

Significant exceptions to  a typical cycle occur with the renewal of what’s called a “Big Deal” package.  These packages are so named because they are, well, big, both in terms of number of total titles and the fact that the titles represent most, or all, of a publisher’s content. The deal, beyond the size of what you get, lies (pun intended!) in the unique way in which the package is priced. Traditionally this is based on a library’s historic total spend with a publisher at a given time, rather than the title-by-title value of the list.

Another exception is these deals are often negotiated in multi-year contracts, requiring a comprehensive review only every 2-5 years, as opposed to annually. Yet all of the annual renewal steps above must still happen in a multi-year contract renewal.  If your library budget is under close scrutiny, that more comprehensive analysis probably involves more people, such as deans and directors, sister campuses, and often consortia. More than likely the analysis also involves more data, such as usage, interlibrary loan (ILL) or other article level access options, overlap analysis, or citation analysis.  A communication plan may also be necessary whether the purpose is justifying continuing expenses or considering cancellations.

“No Big Deal?”

When looking for savings these packages seem a reasonable option for cutting costs, given their large portion of the budget and the number of included titles, sometimes hundreds of which get little to no use.  Unfortunately, however, because the Big Deal is not designed according to title-by-title spend, attempting to subscribe to fewer titles at list price can mean paying more in the end.  Outright cancellation is not without risk either, since in addition to a major loss of revenue for the publisher, this can translate to unpredictable and shifted costs for the library.

Some publishers sensitive to the workflow and economic challenges of libraries — usually those with MLS degrees or a background in libraries — make an effort to negotiate for alternative solutions rather than lose large sums of subscription revenue.  Such alternatives, however, rarely include an ability to cut costs through cancellation or by swapping out underused titles.  Nor has there been much effort to limit the amount of content publishers may acquire that libraries must take on in additional spend.

According to a longitudinal ARL study on the topic of Big Deals, however, this model persists because “[n]either market studies or market forces have produced a sustainable new strategy for pricing and selling e-journals” (Strieb & Blixrud, 2014, p 587).  Or in words heard from some of the big names in the business:

“Our business model is not designed to save you money.” – Elsevier

“As long as we’re making money, we’re not inclined to change.” – Springer

Without an on-the-ground budget crisis or other disruptive force, institutions often continue to renew, stuck in a mess of our collective making.  I observed a parallel “stuck” reasoning on the open access side of things when I reported on Garnar & Knox’s ACRL 2015 conference session, “Ethical Issues in Open Access” (tweet above).   This shared state of paralysis led me to wonder how advancing scholarly communication and negotiating subscriptions renewals could work together to get ourselves unstuck.

New Dealings

On the surface these two areas appear to work against each other, since perpetuating renewal of subscription-based models can diminish purchasing power or investment in open access alternatives.  But there is evidence that this is changing both organizationally (MIT) and in the evolving models for open access (see OAWAL, NISO).   As my library prepares to renew four big deals in the near future there is real incentive to explore alternatives.

I would love to hear others’ experiences working with subscription renewals or open access workflows.  What intersections do you see?   Where are you are most stuck?  What alternatives have you tried? Anyone you making inroads to jointly address these issues?

Feel free to share responses in the comments, or email them to



Emery, J., & Stone, G. (n.d.) APC Processing Services. OAWAL: Open Access Workflows for Academic Librarians, 2.6. Retrieved from

MIT Libraries (n.d.). About Scholarly Communication & Collections Strategy. Retrieved from

NISO (2016). Managing an Open Access World, Part 1: Open Access & Acquisitions. [Webinar] Retrieved from

Strieb, K.L., & Blixrud, J.C. (2014) Unwrapping the Bundle: An Examination of Research Libraries and the “Big Deal” portal: Libraries and the Academy, 14 (4), 587–615.

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