Letters to the Editor


D-Lib Magazine
April 2001

Volume 7 Number 4

ISSN 1082-9873

To the Editor

The letters below were received in response to the opinion piece, The Librarians' Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the "Big Deal" , by Kenneth Frazier in the March 2001 issue of D-Lib Magazine.

To the Editor:

The "Big Deal": I Beg to Differ

I read Ken Frazier's article, "The Librarians Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the "Big Deal," with considerable consternation. Leaving aside the "The Prisoner's Dilemma," I would like to look closely at a few of Frazier's straw men.

Not surprisingly his article reflects his particular vantage point (as does this response). His institution subscribes to 600 Elsevier titles in print. Lacking the resources of Wisconsin, Ohio University subscribes to fewer than one-half that many (ca. 275). But, in contrast, Wisconsin has access to 120 of these titles electronically while Ohio has access to 1,200. Even if I were to accept that a "big deal" bundles the strongest and weakest titles, "the essential and the non-essential," it is clear that, without the big deal, Ohio would be unable to provide 325 of the titles that Wisconsin considers the strongest and most essential.

Even more importantly, the evaluation of which are strong and which are weak, of which are essential and which are unessential, would be only opinion. Certainly, opinion and reputation have some import, otherwise why so many pollsters, but I prefer to look at actual behavior. Which titles are scholars, through use, identifying as the strongest and most essential? From Ohio's usage data, I have a measure of that. Wisconsin has its best professional judgement. One thing is clear from our data, what researchers are actually using is substantially different from what we were subscribing to in print. With that base, I am in position to identify the strongest and most essential for my institution based on actual usage. And I, with colleagues in OhioLINK, am in a position to develop new models for acquiring scholarly communications, to change the rules, to use Frazier's term. As David Kohl (of the University of Cincinnati) observed at the past Charleston Conference, we in OhioLINK have already changed the rules by no longer paying more and more for fewer and fewer titles. Now we are paying more and more for dramatically more titles.

Oddly, while attacking bundling, Frazier does praise BioOne. Let's look closely at the evidence. In the usual commercial bundle, I continue to pay what I was paying for print copies but have electronic access to all of a publisher's titles, with a minor surcharge and a rate of inflation negotiated in advance. In contrast, BioOne completely ignores what I was paying in print for the same titles. In my case, BioOne offers an electronic bundle at a cost nearly four times what I was paying for print. If this is "changing the rules," I know of few institutions that can afford such "bold new initiatives." Of course, the good folks at BioOne have capped the cost so that Wisconsin and other large institutions pay the same as Ohio.

In conclusion, I would briefly treat Frazier's three general points: enhanced loyalty, disintermediation, and changing the rules. The first I consider laughable. Loyalty is to my institution and its scholars (and those in Ohio through OhioLINK), not to a particular publisher. Contrary to Frazier's assertion, I can cancel any subscription that I wish; however, I do not immediately free up that amount of money. But I can move it from the journals for which I was paying that no one was using to those that I could not afford to offer but are the most heavily used. From a collection development perspective, my loyalty is not to an outside company or organization (whether Elsevier or SPARC) but to my users.

Disintermediation is another straw man. The complaint that document delivery is not permitted from an electronic source is essentially irrelevant to the discussion. I assume that there are variations in the ILL policies in various big deals and can only note that no ILL rights are lost under the OhioLINK agreements. While I do not have the right to distribute electronic copies of articles from the 1,200 Elsevier titles, the document-delivery option cited favorably by Frazier in another context easily serves this purpose.

As to changing the rules, I think this well summed up in a 1998 ALA panel, we're actually "playing the game while writing the rules." "Changing the rules" becomes a relatively illusory activity when the rules are being continually rewritten. Frazier's attack on the big deal is directed at an animal that existed in the past but is no longer the same. Least of all is it likely to be the shape of the future. But, as a result of the big deal, I have real data on what scholars are using as we negotiate licenses for tomorrow. That is the real solid ground.

K. Mulliner, Collection Development Coordinator, Ohio University Libraries, Athens, Ohio 45701-2978 (mulliner@ohio.edu).

To the Editor:

I would like to point out to Kenneth Frazier and to interested librarians world-wide, that there are journals that take the need for scientific communication vs. the cost of on-line subscriptions very seriously -- seriously enough to have sites that are completely and fully open to the public without charge.

One is Palaeontologia Electronica, the first on-line paleontological journal. It is a completely peer-reviewed scientific publication, in its fourth year of publication. All previous volumes are currently on-line and available in HTML and PDF format. It is also available on CD for a very minor charge ($2.94 U.S.), plus shipping. For those who have access to the World Wide Web, there are also nine mirror sites around the world for improved access. Find out more at this site: <http://palaeo-electronica.org/index.html>.

The other is the Proceedings of the Ocean Drilling Program, both the Initial Reports volumes and the Scientific Results volumes. These volumes are available in HTML and PDF format -- some of the older volumes are available in PDF only, and the oldest volumes are not on-line, but available for purchase. These volumes are mirrored in England, Germany, and Australia for improved access world-wide. Libraries that do not have copies of the volumes can apply to be added to ODP's mailing list and if qualified, will receive all future CD volumes, as well as copies of the early case-bound volume for the cost of shipping (contact Ann Klaus, Publications Manager, <annklaus@odpemail.tamu.edu>.

The volumes can be found at this URL: <http://www-odp.tamu.edu/publications>.

Jennifer Rumford
Electronic Publications Specialist - Ocean Drilling Program
Technical Editor - Palaeontologia Electronica
1000 Discovery Drive
College Station, Texas 77845-9547

March 30, 2001

In response to Kenneth Frazier's recent article in D-Lib Magazine entitled "The Librarians' Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the 'Big Deal,'" (Volume 7 Number 3, http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march01/03contents.html), we in the OhioLINK academic library consortium would like to offer our perspective and experience on how "big deals" can be "good deals" for libraries, publishers, and especially traditionally underserved library users. By negotiating and carefully fashioning business contracts that involve an aggregation of publisher's content and library jurisdictions, dramatic increases can be achieved in cost containment, economies of scale, market penetration, and most importantly in widespread access to scholarly and scientific information.

For us, the very positive experience in the OhioLINK consortium of increasing access to library resources and services at much more reasonable costs indicates the value of adopting new practices based on consortium-level licensing and contracts. While we actively support changes on the publisher side in reforming scholarly communications, we also believe that libraries must reorganize and reorient themselves to take full advantage of digital information systems. We have found that group action - in our case a statewide perspective to library service and a truly deep level of cooperation -- has allowed us to share resources, both print and digital, more effectively than ever before and to forge contracts with publishers that are highly advantageous to libraries.

The serials crisis has been going on for too long, with major reports calling for action from the academic community issued at the ALA annual meeting in Dallas back in 1989. Over the last fifteen years, there have been numerous studies that have analyzed the serials crisis and recommended reforms, which are just beginning to be enacted. In the meantime many libraries have had to cancel subscriptions as their acquisitions budgets have not kept pace with rising journal costs. The thinking behind the OhioLINK Electronic Journal Collection program and its consortium licensing approach was in part a response to this serials crisis and in part a response to new organizational opportunities brought about by digital technology. OhioLINK's goal with electronic serials management has been to control serials costs while increasing access on a large consortium-wide basis. We have achieved this goal, but we acknowledge that our consortium model may not work for all libraries and that fundamental scholarly and scientific publishing reform is still needed. We see consortium-based, aggregation contracts as part of the reform process, not as obstacles to reform.

Mr. Frazier argues that "big deals" are a "dangerous game" in which libraries will in the long run become prisoners in a win-lose situation. We disagree and make the straightforward argument that business deals, big or small, are good or bad for the parties involved based simply on the terms negotiated. OhioLINK negotiates very good deals for its member libraries: more access to content at lower cost, archival rights whenever possible, and the ability to gather accurate use data for evaluation. Big deals between publishers and libraries usually have a one to three year time period, so neither party is really a long-term prisoner of any arrangement.

What Mr. Frazier is really criticizing is libraries doing business with certain large commercial journal publishers. These publishers have a well-documented history of high price inflation for their journals, and their aggressive pricing practices have spurred the current reform efforts in scholarly communications. We share this concern and believe that OhioLINK, through its powerful group purchasing power, is negotiating terms with commercial publishers that are controlling costs to our advantage. We wish to extend the same "big deals" to non-commercial publishers and hope they will understand and take full advantage of the new market that is emerging in library consortia.

To be more specific in our reaction to Mr. Frazier's assertions about "big deals" that run counter to our experience in OhioLINK, we offer the following observations on a number of his specific comments:

1. " The University of Wisconsin and dozens of other research libraries also are holding out…"

These must be the only libraries that can afford to hold out. If every university in Ohio had 600 print and 120 online Elsevier titles we too might feel the flexibility to consider different options. As it is, the Ohio universities average in print subscriptions only 25% of 4800 titles provided by 25 key publishers and publisher groups. And each year, without a change in practice that percentage will go down. And, of course, most of the 38 independent liberal arts colleges and all of the 23 community and technical colleges are barely on the subscription map.

2. "…the push to build an all-electronic collection can't be undertaken at the risk of: (1) weakening that collection with journals we neither need nor want…It bundles the non-essential with the essential."

Apparently the critics of the Big Deal claim to know precisely what their patrons need and have had the funding to meet these needs. In Ohio we admit that our collections have been inadequate and getting more so. We also admit, based on our experience with electronic information of all types that our judgments of need are incomplete and inaccurate - especially when the medium of delivery changes use levels radically. We know that library use changes when books can be delivered to the professor's office instead of picked up at the library, when ILL requests show up in two days instead of two weeks, when journal articles are faxed instead of mailed, and when books or journals are located through electronic catalogs and databases and delivered almost instantly to the desktop. Why, then, are we reluctant to accept that the change in medium of delivery should change the collection development paradigm? If libraries, as a buying community, cling to the old rules of making collection development decisions based solely on the obsolete mentality of use and economics in a print-based world, we do a disservice to the patrons.

On average, for the titles available in 2000 in the OhioLINK EJC, each Ohio university owned in print 659 titles, based on the year prior to the start of each electronic license. In the twelve months from January 2000 - December 2000, patrons downloaded articles from an average 2,681 titles per university, a quadrupling in titles used over print access. The range of this phenomenon was widespread, from a low at Youngstown State of 1,749 titles used to a high at Ohio State of 3,050. Some would argue that surely Ohio State, with 1,376 of the EJC titles in print, already must be meeting most of their campus' needs. In fact, the EJC more than doubled the title access at Ohio State.

Our smaller four-year colleges and community colleges have typically held very few titles in print but now are using hundreds of EJC provided titles. Essentially it is almost entirely new access.

3. "Libraries will lose the opportunity to shape the content or quality of journal literature through the selection process."

We must not lose sight of the overriding problem. In Ohio we have a rationing problem first and a selection problem second at almost all schools. We currently cannot afford to buy what we need. Subscriptions have been declining slowly but surely each year. With a continuation of past practice, influencing the selection process would be a luxury that would come after continuing to make the hard de-selection choices. We don't see that we are losing a luxury we really don't have.

Conversely what we gain in the Big Deal is a much greater ability to shape content and quality by providing real measures of use of the electronic articles. While still not the end-all measure what we have in counting downloaded articles, by title, by school, by self-selected timeframe, is a valuable empirical measure of use. Given that it is so easy to access and find articles directly at the EJC, through catalog and journal index databases, and through faculty book-marking for class assignments, we can cast a very bright light on journals that just don't get selected by patrons. In the end, this measure, taken with other qualitative judgments, will provide a powerful selection ability.

4. "…libraries that buy the Big Deal are obligated to be loyal customers because they can't cancel individual subscriptions."

Not true. Certainly not true over the long term. Certainly not true relative to current practice. Didn't we get into the serial crisis in part because even as individual buyers buying individual titles we found them to be indispensable? Doesn't the University of Wisconsin still have 600 Elsevier Science titles in print plus 120 online? Where was all this freedom to cancel when prices rose year after year? One would expect fewer subscriptions if this were the case.

But since we are coming from a world of rationing, in the short term we are increasing our university average of 280 Elsevier subscriptions to the full complement of over 1200. In the long-run, using our new-found download statistics we can still modify the aggregation we purchase and the cost of it if we see that certain titles are not worth receiving and still end up with more title access.

The typical Big Deal has no longer a life than 3 years, and some shorter. We have ample opportunity to make adjustments within the Deal or to revert to individual action and using what we've learned as a more rational selection guide.

The example used of Lexis-Nexis is not a totally accurate one. Built into that license is a provision that, if the content of Lexis-Nexis declines so will the price. With any aggregation you are dealing with a less than rapier-like approach but it is inaccurate to say that licenses for aggregation cannot account for changes in content delivered.

5. "The Big Deal will give the largest commercial publishers extraordinary power to control terms and conditions of the information market."

Not true. Critics fail to recognize that this increased dependence takes place on the publisher side as well. The advantages to the publisher are substantial. No inherent imbalance in the relationship develops and the stakes are raised for both parties. In OhioLINK's experience there becomes a greater incentive to find common ground from both the buyer and seller than when we are acting as individual buyers. The critics also do not take into account the new information that electronic use date provides at the bargaining table. In the end we do have a viable exit strategy that while doable would be just as or more undesirable for the publisher than it would be for the libraries. Critics do not appreciate that these title packages are not immutable. Are these risk free? No, but neither do they cause an imbalance.

Two examples: The relaxation in ILL policies made by publishers in the late 1990's were already present in the OhioLINK licenses before offered generally. We and other early consortium buyers with economic clout helped negotiate these provisions. We are already second generation into the Big Deal with a number of our publishers. Frankly, the economic terms are getting better and more sustainable and are advantageous over the general market changes. These are win-win Deals given the size and stability of the arrangements. As a large customer, we feel comfortable that issues such as usage rights to outside clients can be resolved to both parties' mutual satisfaction. These issues are not cast in stone.

6. "The most important thing that librarians can do to change the rules of the game is to invest in bold new experiments in scholarly communication;…"

We agree that the new experiments of SPARC and others of similar intent are important both short and long-term. Ohio libraries have invested in these along with the rest of the community. But we must point out that the positive impact of these is by no means a guarantee when in truth our community is in need of more of all publishers' titles and we do not have the luxury of waiting just for these experiments to somehow have a comprehensive impact.

The OhioLINK community's approach has been very pragmatic. We have a certain amount of funds currently in the system for journal subscriptions, divided among the publisher community in a certain way. Whether relatively high or low priced we seek to make each publisher relationship more economically sustainable with higher levels of journal access and use. In the short term we cannot simultaneously afford for low-priced, under-capitalized publishers to use a statewide electronic license to make major pricing corrections even as we seek to bring the cost of high-priced publishers under control.

For example, BioOne's initial offer for consortium-wide access was equal to what it would cost if every Ohio university and every Ohio four-year college subscribed to BioOne immediately. Realistically, that will never happen and the offer is over twice what is currently invested in BioOne in print in Ohio. Realistically, that doubling of funds will not come from cancellation of access from other publishers where we already have limited subscriptions.

We are caught in the middle as a consortium whose members need expanded access across the spectrum of publishers. With all publishers we are seeking new economic and expanded access equilibriums. Our users have the need for a great deal of journal material from both low and high priced publishers and we must take a measured, balanced approach to changes in the economic equations with our publishers if we are to provide access across the spectrum of journals in the market.

As a single, state-based library consortium we don't feel empowered to immediately and dramatically change the market's economic fundamentals that many feel are out of balance. But we do have a need to address our information shortages in the here and now. The few large libraries that are able to buy vast numbers of journals and books may have the luxury of opting for long-term solutions even as they continue to buy from the very publishers we all take to task. In the case of the OhioLINK community we do not have such luxury and must work harder to deal with the tyranny of the urgent and build a bridge to a long-term future.

Consortium administrators and leaders today have new opportunities to expand the use of information dramatically by the patrons of our affiliated institutions through the intersection of highly portable and accessible electronic information and the collective buying power of our libraries. We can overcome the inherent limitations of the print medium, the entrenched and limiting economic practices of vendors to individual institutions, and the library-imposed, self-limiting collection development mentality of information rationing that pervades our community. By radically changing the value equation of information delivered per dollar spent, consortia can set the evolution of our industry on a new and better, long-term course.

From the OhioLINK Library Advisory Committee on behalf of the entire OhioLINK community

Chris Miko Bowling Green State University
Joanne Eustis Case Western Reserve University
Johnny Jackson Central State University
Nancy Schwerner Clark State Community College
Glenda Thornton (CHAIR) Cleveland State University
Mark Weber Kent State University
Stanford Terhune Malone College
David Boilard Medical College of Ohio
Judith Sessions Miami University
Larry Ellis NEOUCOM
Margaret Moutseous Northwest State Community College
Bruce Johnson The Ohio State University Law Library
Joseph Branin The Ohio State University, Main Library
Julia Zimmerman Ohio University
Lois Szudy Otterbein College
Tess Midkiff Shawnee State University
Louis Mays Southern State Community College
Mike Lucas The State Library of Ohio
Del Williams The University of Akron
David Kohl University of Cincinnati
Edward Garten University of Dayton
Chuck Terbille University of Toledo
Victoria Montavon Wright State University
JoAnne Young Xavier University
Tom Atwood Youngstown State University
Tom Sanville OhioLINK, Executive Director

Below is Kenneth Frazier's response to the letter from Kent Mulliner and also the letter that was sent on behalf of the OhioLINK Library Advisory Committee by Tom Sanville. (The letter from John Tagler, Elsevier Science (below) was received too late for D-Lib Magazine to reach Dr. Frazier for his response this month.)

Author's response:

Some of my colleagues have interpreted my criticism of the Big Deal as a criticism of their decision to buy the Big Deal. That was never my intention, but their reaction is understandable.

I have no doubt that the buyers of the Big Deal made an informed, rational decision in the best interest of their users. (The game theory model seemed relevant to the issue precisely because the players in the "prisoners’ dilemma" are behaving rationally.) As I wrote in my opinion piece, the advantages of the Big Deal are so great that it is nearly "irresistible."

It would have been foolish (perhaps even impossible) for any library director to turn down the Big Deal in a consortial arrangement as generously funded as OhioLink.

Libraries that can comfortably expect their collection budgets to grow at 7-10% per year may believe that the Big Deal is a slam dunk. They can buy every species of the Big Deal if it provides a strategy for managing costs and improving information access for their licensed users. And, as many readers of D-Lib know, the Big Deal is about to become the Even Bigger Deal with the merger of Harcourt (Academic Press) with Elsevier.

However, other academic libraries face much less sanguine budget prospects. For example, the University of Wisconsin libraries may not see a collection budget increase for the next two years. Many colleges and universities are not willing to increase library expenditures at two or three times the general inflation rate. For us, the question of whether or not we can keep up with the price increases of commercial publishing is off the table. It is simply not going to happen.

We have good reason to worry that the library will have to pay for the Big Deal by cutting back on not-for-profit publications that are of lower cost and higher research value. More importantly, we have also started to consider the long-term benefits of not contributing to the consolidation of market power in the hands of commercial publishers.

Experience has taught us that the largest commercial publishers will use their economic and market power to place strict limits on the dissemination of new knowledge within society. We can also expect that the commercial publishers will continue to use their profits to lobby Congress for so-called database protection and other restrictions on fair use in a digital environment.

But the institutions that are not in a position to buy the Big Deal have some extremely interesting alternatives. For starters, we can build document delivery and information on demand systems that meet the short-term information needs of our researchers. And, once we stop feeding the giants, we will have enough money to support the start-up ventures that will replace old systems of disseminating research.

There is some evidence that the academic research libraries resisting the Big Deal are now in the minority. However, it will be a significant and powerful minority if we ensure that there continues to be breathing room in the scholarly communication system for publishing models that are primarily committed to the increase and diffusion of knowledge.

Ken Frazier, April 6, 2001

Dear Editor:

Kenneth Frazier, in his article, "The Librarians' Dilemma: Contemplating the Costs of the 'Big Deal'," in the March 2001 issue of D-Lib Magazine, presents his view of publishers' approaches to offering journals in electronic format. In the article, as in several speeches in the past year, Frazier describes the "Big Deal," whereby publishers supposedly impose "a one-price, one size fits all package . . . [of] electronic access to all of a commercial publisher's journals." Elsevier Science is among the publishers accused of imposing such a "Big Deal." This depiction is not accurate and does not reflect the breadth of electronic subscription options available to Elsevier Science subscribers.

To suggest that Elsevier Science has a single, one-size-fits-all package that we're trying to foist on libraries does a disservice to the hard work and investment we have devoted to developing an electronic information delivery system that responds to the differing needs of the research community and uses the potential of the electronic environment to move scientific research to a new and more cost-efficient level.

From the outset, Elsevier's ScienceDirect service has offered libraries options in making the transition from print to electronic format, including combining print with electronic or subscribing to electronic only. We have not required a library to subscribe to all Elsevier titles or even all titles currently held in print. Different alternatives, at difference price levels, have always been available. In addition, we have offered both online and local storage services, to meet the needs and wishes of different institutions.

Here is a summary of the various electronic options currently available on ScienceDirect that do not require purchase of the entire Elsevier Science list of journals:

1. ScienceDirect Web editions: online access to the most recent 12 months of a journal's issues, free to paper subscribers.

2. The Complete Collection: electronic access to all subscribed Elsevier Science journals held by an institution, current year plus four years of backfiles.

3. Subject Collections: customized collections of titles in 20 different subject disciplines and based on titles held by an institution, current year plus four years of backfiles.

4. Customer selection: institutionally-defined selections of titles held by an institution, current year plus four years of backfiles.

5. Options 2, 3 and 4 also available as electronic-only subscriptions, at a reduced price.

6. Options 2, 3 and 4 can also include access to non-subscribed titles, either on a transactional or fixed fee basis.

7. Options 2, 3 and 4 may be ordered with or without a selection of navigators (secondary services).

8. Backfiles: the entire Elsevier Science list of journals, starting with volume 1, issue 1, will be available on ScienceDirect. The first collection -- in organic chemistry -- was just released.

9. Specialty platforms: e.g., BioMedDirect, Ei EngineeringDirect, PhysicsDirect and PharmaDirect OnSite, which extend the notion of a subject collection online by integrating primary literature with secondary databases and other resources, enriched by navigation and functionality capabilities designed for a particular field.

Many of our subscribers, from early to recent licensees, have chosen not to subscribe to the complete Elsevier list of journals and have customized their electronic subscriptions to suit their collections. The license permits customers to adjust their holdings to adapt to their budgetary and information needs. They may substitute new titles for duplicate subscriptions or exchange existing titles for journals that may be more suitable for current users' needs. Even today, the majority of our electronic licenses are not for the full package of all Elsevier journals. Certainly, as customers have gained experience with ScienceDirect, a number of institutions and consortia that started out with partial electronic collections have expanded their electronic holdings because of the demonstrated benefits of access to a more comprehensive list of titles.

Elsevier Science, through open linking technologies, provides researchers with links to content beyond the boundaries of ScienceDirect. We were among the founding members of CrossRef, a collaborative initiative among commercial and not-for-profit publishers, that enables interdocument links to and from the full text of more than 65 participating publishers.

As head of the ARL SPARC effort, Mr. Frazier may be confusing his role as a competitive publisher with the need for accurate representation of what other publishers are doing. We are pleased to have an opportunity to set the record straight.

John Tagler
Vice President
Marketing, Electronic Publishing
Elsevier Science
tel 212 633-3780

D-Lib Magazine welcomes letters related to digital library research and electronic publishing issues. Also welcome are letters with questions or comments about the magazine in general, or about stories appearing in the magazine. Please do not send those that are primarily commercial, promotional, or advertising in nature.

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Copyright (c) 2001 Corporation for National Research Initiatives

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DOI: 10.1045/april2001-letters