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Cancellation of Elsevier Packages at Cornell, MIT, Harvard, etc. - Commentaries

:: On 23 March 2004, I posted the following e-mail to four listservs (ELDNET-L, SLA-ENG, PAMNET, and STS-L):

"Hello everyone, and please excuse the xposting. This is a query about the impact and/or fallout from the cancellations of Elsevier packages and/or journals, by MIT, Harvard, Cornell. Has anyone heard of reactions from faculty at these universities and institutes regarding the loss of access to Elsevier titles? Are any faculty members complaining vociferously, or applauding wildly? Are any "alternatives" being discussed? I'm thinking, it's not like these three universities are minor players in academia and research. Despite outrageous pricing schemes, Elsevier journals still carry much weight in the scholarly community. To ensure that their research remains cutting edge, what will the faculty at these campuses do to maintain access to Elsevier titles for the time being? Use ILL services only? Or start to move away from Elsevier titles, in their research and publishing activities?"
I've received a number of responses, and with permissions where required, compiled and posted the responses back to the four listservs. I am also posting those replies here, for your perusal and feedback. What do you think of the stands taken by major campuses like Cornell and others, in reaction to Elsevier's pricing schemes and packages?

The feedback follows:

1) I am not so sure that many of the Elsevier titles still publish 'cutting edge' research, or at least enough to justify the prices. We were encouraged by the most affected faculty member to cancel J. Mol. Structure/THEOCHEM last year and will propose some more this year. It probably depends on where faculty members are able to publish their results. If they can get their articles into ACS,RSC,APS, etc. then they probably don't care but ...

2) Hello Randy. Do not forget Universities A, B, C, and D (eastern US). So far, faculty have been satisfied with canceling lower use titles, maintaining a fairly substantial core of titles print+online, and using delivery services to cover the rest. Part of their satisfaction is that we have been able to reinvest in other priority areas such as ejournals from professional societies like the American Society for Microbiology and large ejournal archives.

3) Hi Randy: From a Northeast ARL library: These top universities walking away from the "big deal" have had a definite impact on our research faculty and library administration. I expect we will seek a significantly smaller "baseline" annual fee for our "big deal" or we will walk away. Being able to point to MIT, Harvard, & Cornell is a huge reassurance for both our library/univ. administration and faculty.

It is difficult to find anyone here with a good word for Elsevier. As the largest commercial publisher, the years of well above general inflation increases, the reported "obscene" profits, etc. have made Elsevier the lightning rod for a growing backlash. Elsevier is in serious trouble, though it probably does not know it yet. What interests me are that both long tenured faculty and brand new untenured faculty are equally unhappy with high priced publishers and have in fact made journal affordability an important factor in their publishing and editorial activities. This "sea change" has happened within just the past 18 months and is gaining momentum. The pioneering "just say no" actions of these major research institutions is only the start. If I had one word to describe the situation, it is momentum. It is building and bursting forth.

4) Randy - I cannot speak for Cornell etc, but here at Gaucamole U, we went Through all this last year, though with much less publicity. We had the Elsevier 'big deal' for a couple of years but found it unsustainable and pulled the plug last August. During the time we had it users often used it as a database for subject searching and generally liked it, though our analysis of usage showed that the vast proportion of use was in previously subscribed titles. When we dropped back to just subscribed titles there was very little outcry, we like to think because we had carefully chosen and refined the list of subscribed titles over the years though it was still quite long).

In the process of dropping the big deal we did lose access to 1995-1997 and users noticed that more than the absence of titles. Some of this is due to the way Elsevier presents the information. My feeling is that users expectations are different 'on the internet'. If they find something, good. If not, they move on and try something else.

5) We are also cancelling many Elsevier titles this year. Some professors are upset, but many are very supportive and are encouraging their fellow faculty members to publish in the less expensive titles so we won't need to rely on overpriced publishers. We are in the midst of the cancellations now, so I'm not sure how many we will be cancelling yet.

6) Randy: Well, I *don't* know about Cornell, Harvard, and MIT, but when we were offered the Elsevier ScienceDirect package last year, we looked at what it would take to subscribe to it, how much it would cost (and the cost kept escalating throughout our process!), what journals were covered, and so on. We also circulated a title list to our library committee members and asked them to make a list of all the journals they might possibly use from the package. The cost was really outrageous, but we figured if the faculty (represented by our library committee) wanted it and thought they'd make use of it, then we'd make it work.

We then held a library committee meeting, and the universal decision was that the price was ridiculous for the content and that the faculty were happy to get anything they needed through our excellent (their word) interlibrary loan system. The package was weak in some of our major program subjects and the feeling was that we ought to buy what was really going to be used and was really necessary. ScienceDirect seemed to them to be a scattershot approach of subscribing to a huge scientific package in hopes of providing a little bit of everything.

Although we've had faculty ask us why we don't subscribe, when we tell them how much Elsevier wanted to charge us and what it did and didn't have, they immediately understand our decision. We usually do add something like "But if you really want an Elsevier journal we can see about subscribing to that title alone." Haven't had any takers on that one.

7) Dear Randy, you might want to check Stanford's faculty resolution on this. We never signed on to SD, and now I'm so glad we didn't.

8) Hi Randy, MIT's decision last year to move from a multi-year commitment to a one-year contract with Elsevier has not yet impacted the breadth of access our faculty have to Elsevier titles, because we have not yet gone to the Limited Collection model. That probably explains why there has been as yet little if any fallout in terms of faculty response here.

There have however been discussions here in the faculty committee, and articles in the Faculty Newsletter, on the general problem we face with some publishers. Also, our decision to cancel Wiley titles effective this year (described on the same web site, has not, yet, resulted in significant complaints from faculty.

Our sense is that many faculty here are well aware of the issues and choices libraries face, and the statement on that web site from the Chair of the Faculty Committee on the Library System, reflects their understanding and concern.

Now that we are in a one-year contract with Elsevier, we are in the process of engaging the faculty more broadly in discussions about our next steps, which ould involve moving to the Limited Collection model. This would result in a significant reduction in the total number of Elsevier titles to which MIT subscribes, but it's too early to say what the faculty response to or support for that option might be.

9) Randy -- Good question, and although I'm intrigued with your "solution" of using inter-library loan - I know from some first hand experience that Elsevier sets up their contract (or at least the operation of their web-based subscriptions) so that you cannot forward a copy of a given Elsevier article beyond the campus! Faculty, staff and students are okay - but beyond that, they do not recognize "Fair Use"!! I don't know if this is result of conversations with certain libraries - but the effect of net lenders and net borrowers would be exacerbated by the proposal you are suggesting - and it could be Elsevier already took that into account with their way of operating subscriptions.

10) We dropped ScienceDirect this year at Small Potatoes University. Results: much pissing and moaning, from faculty and students alike. I smile sweetly at them and ask what they would prefer to see cut instead, given that we were quoted a CY2004 price between $200,000 - $300,000 (USD). (Yikes, I hope that doesn't get me in trouble with the Contract Police.)

Most seem surprised, but understanding or resigned, when they hear what it would have cost. A few have wondered aloud how Elsevier manages to sell its product at all. None of our faculty seem to have gotten SPARC/OAI/whatever religion as a result. However, we operated for years under the administrative assumption that faculty didn't need to know the truth about serials pricing, so we and our faculty are a little behind our respective curves.

On very rare occasions when someone continues to give me a hard time. I cheerfully point out that all they have to do is include the cost in their next grant proposal, fork over the money, and we'll get ScienceDirect back in a jiffy. I am hocked, absolutely shocked that nobody has taken me up on the offer.

11) Here at Cornell we have had many discussions with faculty over the past few years about the serials crisis. We solicited their input and made every effort to keep the journals that they felt they needed.

Several faculty have approached us for help in deciding where to publish, including some alternatives to the traditional model. The Cornell University Faculty Senate passed a resolution encouraging the library to:

* ....the University Faculty Senate encourages the library to seek in the near term, in consultation with the faculty, to reduce its expenditures on Elsevier journals to no more than 15% of its total annual serials acquisitions expenditures (from in excess of 20% in 2003).

The entire faculty senate resolution is available at:

There have been few negative comments and quite a bit of positive reinforcement for our decisions. We are pleased to find that the controversy has caught the attention of graduate students and have lively conversations with many of them.

12) Hi, The Naval Research Lab Library never bought into the subject collections or the 'freedom plan' so our biggest change with 2004 was the consortial negotiation of two title lists. We've jointly purchased Elsevier content along with many other Navy and Federal Government research libraries through a consortium.

The first title list was the aggregate list of titles by all consortial members which everyone paid a fee for a portion of the unsubscribed content value. The second title list was a 'core' list based upon usage in our locally-hosted system - those with high usage at more than one location were added to the core list. The assumption was that if a title was heavily used at one site, then that site would pick it up on their own and not add it to the shared title value of the other members. Each participant was able to choose whether they would subscribe to the full list (roughly 550 titles) or the core list (roughly 150 titles).


Wonderful stuff! Assuming I can print it off neatly, I may refer to some of it in the next Libraries & Access feature in Cites & Insights...

Thanks for putting this together.

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