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Cornell University Library cancels Elsevier journal package

:: http://www.news.cornell.edu/Chronicle/03/12.11.03/CUL_Elsevier.html

    "After several months of negotiations, Cornell University Library (CUL) administrators have decided not to renew CUL's subscription with publisher Reed Elsevier for a bundled package of more than 900 journals. Beginning in 2004 the library will subscribe to a smaller number of individual Elsevier titles. Library administrators cite an unsustainable pricing model, prohibitive selection options, and the financial impact on the library's ability to purchase other journals as reasons for its decision.

    Many key academic journals, especially in the sciences, are now owned by a small number of for-profit companies in Western Europe. The largest of these publishers is Reed Elsevier, which has a significant presence in North America and Europe. Last year a Morgan Stanley Report enthusiastically proclaimed that "scientific publishing [has been] the fastest-growing media sub-sector of the past 15 years." It has also become one of the most profitable. Part of the growing profits has been fueled by journal bundling, in which a publisher offers electronic access to all of its journals for the sum of previous individual subscription fees, plus a premium. Among librarians, this is known as the "big deal."

    In good times, the big deal is almost irresistible. Scholars love it because they have access to more content and librarians appreciate it because they can build comprehensive collections. But there is a drawback: Once a library signs up for the big deal, it is very hard to walk away and the subscription fees increase much faster than most library budgets. Publishers prohibit libraries from canceling (even duplicate subscriptions) as a prerequisite for remaining in the big deal, and they provide incentives for libraries to contract for the aggregation for three to five years.

    Once a library has licensed access to a bundle of journals, it can become even more costly to extricate itself from the agreement, as individual subscription prices increase substantially for the journals it retains after canceling the bundle. In addition, libraries run the risk of disappointing readers who have become dependent on access to a broad range of journals.

    Starting in 2004, CUL will opt out of Elsevier's bundled package of journals -- which comprises primarily science journals -- and return to title-by-title purchasing. "The big deal was an unsustainable model for Cornell," said University Librarian Sarah Thomas. "We were going to have to start canceling high-value journals from societies and nonprofit association publishers that we needed, in order to pay for Elsevier journals we didn't need, but couldn't cancel."

    In 2003, CUL's subscription included 930 online and print journals published by Elsevier. Although these titles represent less than 2 percent of the library's subscriptions, the contract with Elsevier for the bundle amounted to more than 20 percent of the library's journal subscription expenditures.

    Cornell is not alone in its decision this year. Harvard recently announced that it is reconsidering its big deal with Elsevier and other research libraries are following suit. Several well-respected researchers have called for a boycott of Cell Press journals (which are owned by Elsevier) since the University of California has been unable to negotiate for fair prices. (See http://walterlab.ucsf.edu/cell.html.) Columbia University is maintaining access to its Elsevier titles, but will be eliminating almost all print copies in favor of electronic journals only.

    After making the decision that Elsevier's terms for continuing access to the bundled package were not in the best interest of Cornell scholars, CUL now faces higher individual subscription fees for the journals it will retain. As a result, the library has had to cancel significant numbers of its Elsevier journals in order to reallocate its resources to pay the higher prices. However Ross Atkinson, CUL's associate university librarian for collections, noted that the library has been analyzing usage statistics for Elsevier titles for several years. "When the cost per use is calculated, it's clear that it hasn't been a wise use of our limited budget to subscribe to many of these titles," he said. "Our focus now is on canceling duplicate subscriptions and reducing the number of subscriptions to printed journals that we hold in electronic form."

    CUL also will cancel unique titles that are both expensive and receive little use. "Faculty members have been integral in helping us distinguish the journals that are essential to teaching and research from those that are of less importance," Atkinson said. The library remains committed, library administrators say, to obtaining access to information needed by Cornell students and faculty to meet teaching and research needs.

    The recent announcement about the library's position regarding Elsevier has inspired considerable debate on campus. The University Faculty Library Board plans to ask the Faculty Senate to consider the issue in a forthcoming session."

From: Cornell Chronicle, v35 n17, 11 Dec 2003, p8.

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